Alexa and Cortana Teamed Up, But Consumer Tech Is Still Stuck in an Ecosystem War
The voice interfaces
Cortana and Alexa's competitors,
Meanwhile, though Google Assistant runs on
Your device also won't play well with a competing desktop OS; Apple's Handoff and iCloud make iPhones and Macs work together seamlessly, whereas coordinating an Android phone with a Mac is clunky, and plugging an iPhone into a
The TV ecosystem is just as bad, largely thanks to Amazon's own selfish decisions. Amazon still hasn't released its promised Apple TV app , so Prime customers have to stream Transparent and Curb Your Enthusiasm from their phones. There are no plans for an Amazon app on the Chromecast, or for Spotify on Apple TV . You can retreat to a third-party media player like Roku, but then you can't play videos purchased through iTunes without a wonky file conversion .
Meanwhile, Facebook runs around kind-of integrating with all these other services while trying to push its own messaging and sharing platforms, and burying every post that dares link to YouTube or Twitter.
As a customer choosing a phone, computer, and media player, you're stuck with three choices:
- Buy into an ecosystem that inevitably has some crappy elements. You could choose Google, and miss out on Apple's slick interface and seamless desktop-to-mobile integration. Or choose Apple, lose a lot of third-party functionality, and get locked into increasingly bizarre design choices (your Lightning headphones won't work on your laptop ) and inferior software like Apple Maps, Mail, and Calendar. On desktop, choose Windows and miss out on that same integration, or choose Apple, pay more for the same computing power, and get your computer games a year late.
- Straddle ecosystems, running the Google Suite instead of MS Office and hooking your iPhone up to your PC or your Android to your Mac. Run Spotify, buy an Echo, and live with their limited capabilities. Maybe even run Excel on
OS X. All but the most basic users reach outside their main ecosystem at some point.
- Install Linux on your Chromebook, jailbreak your iPhone, run Cortana on your FitBit, hack your Echo to play Tidal, and write a viral Medium post encouraging people to "unplug."
In the short term, all these companies have good reasons to lock up their platforms wherever they still think they can steal market share from the others, and wherever they would rather focus resources on improving their own service instead of handing millions of customers to their competitors through a partnership.
But in the long term, this lock-in keeps the Big Five from innovating, their products leaning on the crutch of the ecosystem, alienating customers who will then abandon the ecosystem for third-party services like Spotify, Dropbox, WhatsApp, 1Password, and Overcast .
Historically, these ecosystems tend to open up, making way for the next battle. Macs and PCs didn't always run so many of the same apps. Internet Explorer and Netscape were much more mutually exclusive than Chrome and Safari. And for a while, your Internet came in flavors of AOL, Prodigy, or CompuServe. Even Android and iOS used to have zero apps in common. But each time, interoperability won out, bringing (most of) each platform's strengths to everyone.
But things could get worse before they get better. The Big Five are all racing to win at online payments, wearables, AI, AR, VR, smart homes, smart cars, and the growing Internet of Things. And as long as each company thinks it can win, it will try to push out the others instead of playing nice.
Eventually there will be winners and losers, or decentralized cooperation. Every now and then, a new protocol will open up that's as decentralized as email or HTTP. And the giants of the day will move onto a new fight.
In the meantime, there's nearly always some way to force the ecosystems to play together, at the expense of simplicity and not having your shit constantly break. There's always some third option to jimmy into the gap and outperform all the defaults. And that's what Lifehacker's all about.