There are many advantages to going with a single ecosystem for your desktop PC, laptop PC, mobile phone, and tablet. (Even game system and television, in some cases.) Devices within that ecosystem are designed to work well with each other. They sync easily so that preferences and media can be effortlessly copied or shared with multiple devices. Applications may be universal, meaning they require a single purchase to work on multiple devices at the same time. And the user interfaces are usually similar or identical across devices.
Though many users cross ecosystems and choose iOS, Android, and Windows devices based on need and not interoperability, we’re going to focus on what happens when a user decides to stay within a single ecosystem: what are the advantages and disadvantages, and what are the weak links are in that ecosystem?
Apple probably has the most tightly integrated ecosystem of any of the three. ITunes is just a better application on Apple products than on Microsoft’s products. And Apple has a television device, the AppleTV, that fits right into the ecosystem as well.
Benefits of the Apple ecosystem
In the Apple ecosystem, Apple devices back up to the same iCloud system that other Apple devices and PCs can use. You can stream music and video to other devices (like the Apple TV) using free AirPlay functionality. You can even mirror the device’s screen on another device. It makes a lot of sense to have multiple Apple devices in a home.
Operating system updates on iPhones and iPads are always free, updating an iPod Touch is usually free, and updating a Mac to the latest OS will run you $20. Note that there’s never a charge for incremental updates.
Once you purchase an app on any Apple device, you can sync it to any other Apple device free, or re-download it without restrictions. This is also the same for media purchased in iTunes.
Drawbacks of the Apple ecosystem
Old operating systems swiftly become unsupported by hardware and software, forcing you on an upgrade path that you may not necessarily wish to take. The flipside is also bad: newer Apple OSes can often not run legacy apps. Don’t even try to run an old PowerPC Mac app on a newer Intel Mac. It won’t work.
Apple even stops offering support for older versions of its operating systems after only a year or two, a far narrower window than, say, Windows. Also, app developers often discontinue support for earlier versions of iOS, or earlier device generations, forcing you to upgrade to continue using the app. For example, many new high-profile apps don’t work on the first iPad at all.
The other big weakness is that Apple’s ecosystem will run you much more money than any of the others. You’re paying for the brand, and also an expectation of quality
Millions of people consider the iPhone the best smartphone ever, and with good reason: it pioneered the touchscreen and spawned dozens of imitators. The newest iPhone 5 offers 4G connectivity and a larger screen, and the newest iPod Touch also offers a larger screen and a thin form factor.
The newest iPads are more expensive than competing Android tablets. They offer a similar experience as the iPhone and iPod Touch, but on a larger scale and with many tablet-specific applications. Apple also introduced the iPad mini this year for those who want an iPad that’s closer in size to an iPhone.
The Mac itself is somewhat of the weakest link in the Apple ecosystem. Someone used to the touchscreen iOS interface of the iPhone and iPad is going to be confused that Apple doesn’t even offer a touchscreen option for the Mac. And though several of the icons look the same, Apple’s OS X is very different than iOS. That said, iTunes works very well on the Mac, and it’s much less of a headache to sync an iPhone or iPad with a Mac than a PC. If you can justify the expense, adding a Mac to complete the Apple ecosystem makes a lot of sense. Plus, when you get a look at the slim, 5-millimeter-thick iMacs, it’s going to be hard to say no.
Like a gaming system, AppleTV is a device that connects to your TV via HDMI. But it’s not a gaming system; instead, it streams movies and TV shows to your TV from your iTunes library in the cloud. You can also stream media from an Apple device using AirPlay. This little $99 device fits right in to the Apple family and is really useful.
But what about Google…?
Though it started the race late, Google’s Android operating system has quickly caught up, offering a range of phones and tablets of all sizes, builds, and price points. Unlike Apple, it’s not all a single design, so you can choose the Android device that looks and feels the best for you.
Benefits of the Google ecosystem
The Android ecosystem is even more tightly integrated than Apple’s. By using a unified Google login, you can automatically download all the apps you’ve downloaded or purchased on one device to all of your devices – all without having to use an intermediary application like iTunes. Though some manufacturers, like Samsung, like to put their own “skin” or operating system layer on top of Android, the basic experience is the same across all devices. Applications and media automatically sync across all Google devices. Once you purchase it, it’s yours.
The Google ecosystem is among the least expensive. Good Android tablets cost about half of what an iPad costs, and the phones are comparable in price with Apple and Microsoft.
Though Google frequently updates Android, it still offers tech support for the earliest versions. Also, app developers are encouraged to be as backward compatible as possible. This chart shows the latest breakdowns of Android users: half of all Android users are still on Gingerbread, which is several versions old.
Drawbacks of the Google ecosystem
Operating system updates are always free for any Android device. However, you’re restricted by your device’s manufacturer. While “pure” Android devices like the Nexus 4 get updates immediately, branded devices like the Samsung Galaxy S3 can take months to update. It took five months for Samsung to get Jelly Bean after it had already been released.
There are relatively few apps that are optimized specifically for larger Android devices, like tablets. Often, you’re stuck using the phone version, but stretched out.
The initial line of Android phones had a clunky operating system, a small screen, and poor battery life. These devices didn’t stack up well against an iPhone, but times have changed, and phones like the Galaxy S 3 and HTC One X are as good, if not better, than the iPhone 5. The larger screen, NFC (near-field communication), removable battery, and the ability to add a memory card in some models separate these Android phones from the iPhone pack. The Galaxy S 3 has a superior feature set compared to most any mobile phone.
Though initially a weak link in the form of the heavy, expensive Motorola Xoom, the latest Android tablets, like the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire, are inexpensive, light, and fast. Most have a smaller form factor for ease of use (and the iPad Mini is a response to this trend). The Kindle Fire, especially, is a link to Amazon’s own ecosystem, including FreeTime Unlimited, a subscription service that provides a huge range of free apps and games for kids. No other tablet has anything like that.
In the absence of any true Google Android PCs, Google has a line of ChromeBooks, which run in the cloud and are based on Google’s Chrome Web browser. Unfortunately, ChromeBooks are useless offline, and are missing applications that only work in Windows. Google’s weakest link is definitely the PC, then, forcing a user to choose between a Windows or a Mac machine. The Chromebook runs an operating system based on Google’s Chrome browser.
Google TV, rather than being a standalone device, is a component of many smart TVs. This Android experience on your TV allows you to access applications, Chrome, and so on, just as you would do on a standalone device.
And how about Microsoft…?