Microsoft vs. Apple vs. Google: A Critical Look At Hardware, Software and Services

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With the holiday shopping season rapidly approaching and the release of Microsoft's new mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8 hitting the shelves just days ago, I figured it was time to see where each of the 3 tech giants in computing (Microsoft, Apple & Google) stand when it comes to their hardware, software and services.

MICROSOFT

Windows Phone 8

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Starting with the newest major player in the fight for your mobile heart, lets take a look at what Microsoft is bringing to the table. Windows Phone 8, the new and improved mobile OS from Microsoft that they're hoping will propel them at least into a competitive 3rd place in the mobile market. Windows Phone 7 wasn't exactly a success, capturing less than 2% of the smartphone market in 2 years. Microsoft hopes they can spark some much needed excitement in the Windows brand with a total refresh of their products and services. They've got a lot riding on the entire Windows 8 line (PCs, Phones, and Tablets) and plan on spending $1 Billion dollars telling people about it. The beautifully designed, yet slightly bulky 4.5" Nokia Lumia 920 phone just launched with a wallet friendly $99 price tag (with contract) to hopefully entice smartphone shoppers to take the leap into the Windows Phone 8 ecosystem. HTC has also released the Windows Phone 8X with a similar array of colors that is thinner and just as gorgeous as the Lumia 920, but lacks the excellent Carl Zeiss camera and built in wireless charging of the Lumia. It's going to be an uphill battle for Microsoft to try to take marketshare from Android and Apple but if anyone has the deep pockets to do it, it's Microsoft. The Windows Phone 8 OS is slick and functional. With what they are calling "live tiles", that constantly update and provide pertinent information like emails, twitter messages, etc. These live tiles are across the entire Windows 8 universe, from phones to tablets to laptops and computers. 

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CLOUD SERVICES

Microsoft's often under-appreciated cloud service named "SkyDrive" is also fully integrated into all Windows 8 devices. Allowing you to sync all of your devices data, files, settings, etc. similar to Apple's iCloud (more about that later) but with the added feature of letting you share documents, images and files (like Google Drive). SkyDrive is basically the best of iCloud and Google Drive in one service (syncing + virtual hard drive) with the added benefit of Microsoft Office integration as well. Microsoft gives you 7GB of space for free when you initially sign-up for the service (compared to 5GB for Apple's iCloud and Google's G-Drive) and you can upgrade to  20GB for $10 a year, and 100GB for $50. Google (G Drive) charges $60 for 100GB and Apple charges $100 for just 50GB on iCloud. SkyDrive is also Mac compatible.

MULTIMEDIA

So Windows 8 for desktops and laptops has been released. Check. Microsoft's underdog tablet, the Surface RT has been released. Check. And the Windows Phone 8 has now been released. Check. So everything should be great with Windows 8 right? RIGHT? Well that depends on who you ask. In design, core functionality, media, and cloud services Microsoft offers competitive and in some cases better options then their competition. The phones, and Surface RT hardware both have great, playful designs, full of color, which is a stark contrast to the black slabs offered by the competition. Microsoft's newly updated Xbox Music and video software offered across all of their Windows 8 devices, including the Xbox 360 all work like any modern content store should. Buy a movie/TV show from any device and have the ability to download or stream that content from the cloud to any other Windows 8 device. The interface is slick and fits in with their minimalist, digitally native Windows 8 design scheme. 

Xbox Music will work as a subscription service, similar to Spotify, Rdio and other music streaming services that will be accessible from any of your Windows 8 devices as well as the Xbox 360. There will be 18 million songs to choose from for $9.99/month or $99/year with a free 30-day trial. Microsoft obviously got the memo that streaming subscriptions are the future (and present for some already) and once you have access to all music at all times it's hard to live without.

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Windows 8 on the desktop/laptop is a huge gamble for Microsoft. Instead of separating the desktop and mobile experience like Apple has done, Microsoft decided to merge them into one, "unified" OS. At least in theory. They've made the calculated risk of hiding the traditional desktop we've all grown so used to and covering it with a brightly colored touch friendly user-interface. Merging the touchy-feely-ness of a tablet operating system with the keyboard and mouse world of desktop computing could end up being a horrible strategic move on Microsoft's part, alienating a whole segment of traditional Windows users, specifically enterprise users, which is Microsoft's bread and butter and forcing them to stay on older versions (Windows 7). Alternatively, it could be seen as a brilliant move that forces PCs and their users into the 21st Century, where mobile computing plays a prominent role in how we use computers. 

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There are dozens of Window 8 machines coming out this fall in all types of form factors that try to make good use of the new touch friendly interface. Some with twistable screens that turn into slightly thick tablets, some that appear as traditional laptops but with the added "feature" of having a touch screen and of course Microsoft's own Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets. The Surface RT tablet is an interesting if not slightly confusing creature. At first glance it looks like it should function as a normal Windows 8 laptop except for the fact that it doesn't run traditional Windows software. Since it's running on ARM mobile processors you can not install any legacy PC software. All programs.....ahem, excuse me, Apps, will have to be purchased from the Windows App Store. That means if the app you are used to running on your PC isn't in the Windows Store, you're out of luck. This may not seem like a huge deal, the iPad works exactly the same way, except when you consider that Microsoft isn't exactly making it crystal clear to consumers on the limitations of the Surface RT, there is bound to be some confusion as it shares the same interface as a "real" Windows 8 laptop. One feature that isn't present on the iPad that really separates it from it's competition is the ability to run two apps at the same time. One taking up 1/3 of the screen while the other uses the other 2/3rds. It's a pretty awesome and useful feature, perfect for running a twitter app or mail client in the 1/3 while getting other work done on the rest of the screen real estate. Another benefit or awkward transition (depending on who you ask) is that with a click of a button you can access the desktop and run Microsoft Office (sans Outlook) and Internet Explorer just as you would on a normal Windows laptop. So the desktop is there but it can only be used for the pre-installed programs Microsoft has sanctioned. Again you can not install programs not sold in the Windows App Store. But don't fret, Microsoft thought of something for you power users that need your full PC programs.

The Surface Pro, will be similar to the Surface RT but slightly thicker, have fans for the added heat and one more important feature, it will have a Intel processor inside so you can run those traditional applications. Microsoft has released the specifications of the Surface Pro, which are similar to a lot of Ultrabooks but there is no price or release date as yet. With the Surface RT starting in at $499 we can expect the Surface Pro to be in the $999 price range, comparable to similar computing devices with the same specs. Both are compatible with wired and wireless mice as well as the very cool magnetic attaching keyboards that come in multiple colors and two functioning styles. The Touch cover, which has no "real" buttons and uses touch sensing technology to identify which keys you're pressing and a chicklet style keyboard called the "Type Cover" that has thin clickable buttons. The keyboards are sold separately but Microsoft is bundling a Surface RT and black Touch Cover for $599 or $119  separately if you want a colorful option. The Type Cover is $129, also sold separately. 

Note: It has been recently discovered that although the Surface RT starts at 32GB the OS and restore takes up about 16GB of that space, leaving you with about 16GB to use. The Surface does have a SD Card slot for expandable memory but that too has it's limitations on what it can be used for. 

APPS

Now it's time for the not so good news, the Windows App store. While Microsoft has come a long way in the past 2 years since Windows Phone 7 was first released, now with over 100,000 apps in the app store. (Compared to Apple & Google's 700K+ apps each) They've managed to add a lot of the basic apps that most people use, especially in the past few days as Windows Phone 8 has launched. Microsoft claims to have 46 of the top 50 apps available in the iTunes store like Twitter, Pandora, Facebook, and Skype but it's not until you dig a little deeper that you find your favorite app may not be available. A popular app like Instagram is an obvious omission, although there are tons of alternatives a lot aren't of the best quality and some are down right bad knock-offs. Windows guru Paul Thurrott cleverly points out that it's not the number of apps that is a problem for Windows in the near future or even that certain popular apps are missing, but the sheer lack of mind share and public perception that Windows Phone doesn't have any apps is Microsofts hardest hurdle to get over. 

The Windows tablet app selection is a lot more barren than the Phone section. The app count is currently in the hundreds but growing daily. Buyer beware.

DISTINGUISHING FEATURES

Disregarding the app situation for the moment, the Windows 8 ecosystem does offer some features on it's platform that tries to separate itself from the pack. On Windows Phone 8 you have features like the deep integration of Skype, a new feature called "Rooms" that lets you create groups of people that you want to share information with. You can give them access to your calendar, photos, notes or other resources. Data Sense is another new feature that lets you see real-time stats of what apps are using your data and how much. This allows you to keep track of you mobile data use to avoid overages (Carriers must enable this feature). And finally "Kids Corner" this little feature lets you setup a "corner" on your phone for you kids when you want to let them use your phone. It allows them to only use certain apps and features of your phone so they don't get into anything you don't want them too. On top of all of that, Windows Phone 8 is fast and pretty customizable. There are multiple options to change the shape, size and color of the "live tiles" on your device and you can add as many tiles as you like. And last but not least "Smart Glass". A feature that ties in with the Xbox 360 and allows your tablet (Windows 8, iPad or Android) to function as a second screen while you watch TV shows, movies or play video games. The Smart Glass will provide additional or supplemental content to what is being displayed through the Xbox 360. It's a pretty cool feature and has some parallels to what is going on with Apple TV, but it's still too early to tell if this will be really useful and if developers and content providers will get behind it and support it. 

OVERVIEW

If you're a Windows user and you like and are comfortable with it and haven't already dived into Google's or Apple's ecosystem I think the Windows ecosystem is worth a shot. Windows 8 isn't that much of a leap as it may appear. It's essentially Windows 7 with the start button stretched across the entire screen. This may be oversimplifying it slightly but it shouldn't take more than a week for Windows users to get accustom to the new look. At least that's what Microsoft is hoping. If you want a more thorough look at Windows 8 check out The Verge's Review. The Windows 8 ecosystem overall has a lot of compelling features if you lock in to their entire world. For most people, especially those just entering into the smartphone/tablet market I think the App store isn't going to be too much of a hindrance especially the phone. Microsoft has enough money to throw at software developers that by this time next year I'd expect them to be closer to were Google's Play Store is when compared to Apple's App store. The Surface RT is getting mixed reviews around the web, most complaining that the App situation for the tablet which some think is too bare at the moment to warrant a purchase. I personally don't see too many people that are already entrenched in other ecosystems taking the leap, at least not yet.

APPLE

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iPHONE 5

What can I say about the iPhone 5 that hasn't been written 100 times already. The iPhone 5 is the best iPhone ever released. Well crafted, meticulously engineered, gorgeous piece of technology. The screen is now 4 inches, instead of the 3.5 inches of previous iPhones, which now seems tiny compared to a lot of the other top tier smartphones being released today. Apple has (finally) added 4G LTE to the iPhone which is 10-20X faster than 3G, depending on where you live and if you get the Verizon version you'll be able to access multiple carriers around the world by simply adding a SIM card (World phone). They moved from the glass casing found in the iPhone 4 and 4s to an aluminum shell that's much thinner and wont break as easy if dropped. Apple continues to lead the industry in phone design using quality materials with the craftsmanship you'd expect from a fine watch, while most of their competitors products are made of cheap plastics. There is simply no comparison. Because of how intricate the design of the iPhone 5 is, there have been numerous reports of Apple having trouble manufacturing enough to meet demand. As of this writing (almost 2 month after release) in most areas you still aren't able to walk into an Apple store and purchase one without ordering in advance.

iPAD / iPAD MINI

The iPad launched in 2010, kicking off what many believe is the future of mobile computing and possibly computing in general. With now over 100 Million iPads sold it's by far the leading seller of tablet computers and for a while, was the only tablet worth buying. Apple again flexing it's engineering muscle, designed a thin, sleek, powerful 9.7" mobile computing device bolstered by the incredible (250,000+) library of tablet specific apps. The iPad 3, excuse me the new iPad was released in March, 2012 with what Apple called a "Retina Display". Which is basically a marketing term meaning at normal viewing distance the human eye won't be able to see pixels on the screen. A few weeks ago Apple quietly bumped up the graphical power and added the new smaller "lighting connector" (that's now on the iPhone 5) to the iPad, which now makes it the 4th generation iPad. 

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At the same press conference that Apple announced the new (new) iPad they also announced, what everyone has been expecting since earlier this year, a smaller more portable version of the iPad, the iPad Mini. You can read my thoughts on the iPad Mini here, so I won't get into too much detail but the iPad Mini is a 7.9" version of the iPad. It runs all the same software but over 50% lighter, almost a 1/3 thinner with the same processor (A5 chip) as the iPad 2, Apple's now low-end iPad. The draw backs of the Mini which I speak more in-depth on in this article, is basically the screen is not a "Retina" screen. This made the product a non-starter for a lot of owners of the iPad 3 who are used to the crisp, high resolution screen, but others, myself included believe the Mini was targeted at those that wanted a more mobile iPad. Apple would have had to make too many sacrifices on weight, thickness, battery life and price to get a Retina screen inside the Mini that I don't think they were willing to make. I'm sure by this time next year (or maybe another year) we'll see a Retina on a Mini but it just wasn't possible with current technology and price points. 

The iPad mini was seen by most as an answer to the growing popularity of alternative smaller tablets like the Kindle Fire HD and Google's Nexus 7, which are now reportedly selling almost a million a month. Starting at $329 for the 16GB version, the iPad Mini is still $129 dollar more expensive than the tablets it was supposed to be competing against. But with nearly 3 Million sold in its first 3 days available I don't think Apple is worried much. I wouldn't be surprised if Apple sold more iPad Mini's this holiday season than full size iPads.

MULTIMEDIA

Apple was one the first major players in building their digital content distribution store, iTunes. It's the worlds largest library of digital goods. Music, movies, TV shows, Apps, podcast, books and the highly underrated iTunes U, where some of the top universities in the world, like Stanford, M.I.T. and Harvard allows users to virtually take classes for free using video recordings of lectures and downloadable curriculums and handouts. All of this content is usable from any Mac, iPhone, iPhone and iPod Touch device. (note: iBooks does not run on Macs). The media is well integrated like most people would and should expect from an ecosystem today. For instance, download an album from iTunes on your iPhone and the album will automatically download to your Mac and iPad if you choose so. iTunes does come with it's share of problems though. Some people have no problems with it's current design or functionality but there are those that loathe it. Personally on my 2011 iMac it runs relatively smooth for all of the data that I have it maintaining (150GB+), but on my Windows machine it can be painfully slow and unresponsive at times. The Windows version of iTunes has historically ran like crap compared to the OSX version. Imagine that. Luckily Apple has announced a newly designed iTunes 11 that will release sometime in late November. Hopefully it's a complete overhaul of the fundamental code and not just a surface interface redesign. Also, I wouldn't expect a Windows 8 iTunes app, ever.

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iCLOUD

Apple Launched iCloud last year and so far it's been a reasonable success. The goal of iCloud was different than what most cloud storage solutions were doing at the time. Seamlessly sync all of your data between your iDevices and Mac computers without you having to bother with it, and for the most part they have succeeded with that goal. If you take a photo with your iPhone the photo will automatically upload to Photostream, your photo library in the cloud that then beams that photo to any other iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or Mac using your iCloud account.

As of iOS 6, users can create photo albums in their Photostream and share those with other family members that have have iCloud accounts. You can keep those albums private or share them openly on the web. Other features of iCloud includes data backup, always have a backup of your iPhone and iPad in the cloud making it easy to restore any device without the need of a computer. iMessage is another feature that has rolled across the entire Apple line that basically works as Apple's personal messaging system. It's like text-messaging with added features like Read Receipts, delivery confirmation and the ability to start a conversation from your iPhone/iPad and continue it on your Mac, small but useful. There's also Find My Phone which lets you know the location of any Apple device, wipe the data or send it a message if it's lost or stolen. The feature in itself is priceless. I never freak out about losing my phone as I know I can always find out where it is. Other platforms now have 3rd party apps that contain these same features but it's nice to have it built in to the phone. Like previously mentioned, iCloud also has the ability to re-download any content that was previously purchased in iTunes as many times as you like. And if you're willing to pay $25/year iTunes Match will allow you to stream your music library over Wi-Fi or cellular, well worth it if you have a large music library but don't wont it to take up hard drive space on your devices. (Note: Google offers this capability for free on Android phones, which i'll discuss later) Like I mentioned in the Microsoft section, both Microsoft and Google offer similar features give or take but Apple has definitely done a better job of letting it's users know about these features and in some ways make it easier for non-techies to take advantage of them. 

Macs

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With the Mac family of computers it's not even an argument that Apple continuously raises, then sets the bar for desktop and laptop computing for the entire industry. All you have to do is go into your local Best Buy and see how many computer manufactures try to mimic the look of Macbook Airs and iMacs. Every generation Apple engineers seem to be able to make their computers thinner, lighter and more powerful (just like their phones and tablets). This year was no exception, almost all models were given refreshes or remodels. They even added Retina screens to their Macbook Pro line (13 inch & 15inch) and some how made most of the iMac desktop computer disappear into a 5mm frame. Granted these things definitely come at a premium price. The Retina Macbook Pros add a whooping $400-$600 to the price tag depending on the model, compared to the non-Retina Macbook Pros. For the extra cash you get 2560 X 1600 resolution on the 13 inch and 2880 X 1800 on the 15 inch, along with about a 20% reduction in thickness and they shed about a pound in weight, making them almost Macbook Pro (Airs). Speaking of MacBook Airs, Apple's now cheapest and most popular laptops ($999) believe it or not are competitively priced when compared to laptops of the same caliber, size, and weight, also known in the PC world as Ultrabooks.

While Apple has taken steps to make their iPhone, iPad, and Macbook Airs competitively priced (remember when people thought the iPad would cost $800-$1000?) they're not so generous when it comes to their traditional computers. Partly because they sale far less of them, partly because they're more expensive to make, and partly because they can. The build quality, the bundled software (iPhoto, iMovie, Garage Band, reminders, iCal, iChat, Game Center, Message Center, the App store) while hardly impressive individually, together, right of the box is a nice thing to have for the average user. Not to mention you also get access to their industry leading customer service and Genius Bar. Sophisticated techies may scoff at everything I just said but the proof is in the pudding, some people are willing to pay a premium to not have to deal with crap-ware pre-loaded on their computers, machines made out of the cheapest materials available and little to no customer service. Try dealing with Best Buy or HP when you have trouble with your computer. Apple is the Mercedes-Benz of computer hardware. 

APPS

While there are plenty of arguments for alternatives to the Apple universe, the App selection on iOS is the biggest reason not to choose another platform.  Apple is single handedly responsible for the term "App" going mainstream. When their app store opened in 2008 it was an immediate success. Now with over 700,000 apps (250K iPad specific apps) and over 25 Billion downloads (as of March 2012), the app ecosystem is the best in the industry. Apple started expectations high with their apps as they designed killer 1st party apps designed to not only add value to their brand but to show developers what was capable on their platform. Apps like iMovie, iPhoto, Garage band, and the entire iLife suite are all beautiful apps that show what is possible on iOS. Most apps launch on iOS and Android now, but occasionally iOS will get exclusive apps that never make it to other platforms or at least it takes a while (see Instagram). The apps usually tend to work and look better on iOS when compared to other platforms, although that distinction has been shrinking on the Android front. iOS still tends to get exclusive such as Cinemagram, and the hot app of the month, Letterpress. That all could change as Android with just the sheer volume of Android devices (now at 75% of the smartphone market)  are becoming a must have option for developers even though Apple customers download more apps and spend more money on or within apps than Android users. Apple's edge with specialty business software for people in the medical profession, enterprise, and kids with special needs, all help gravitate customers and businesses to their products that may have chosen other cheaper alternatives. 

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As for the operating system (iOS) some say the grid of apps is starting to feel a bit antiquated when compared to Windows Phone 8's customizable live tile interface or Androids highly customizable hybrid of icons and widgets. The "iOS is boring" crowd tend to be the tech enthusiast that love change and new things for newness sake, but functionally iOS could stand a serious upgrade or a least more add-ons for power users. However I doubt Apple is racing to totally redesign an interface that is not only recognizable by hundreds of millions of people but operational and easy to navigate by most of those users. It's a dangerous game tech companies have always had to play. Innovate the user interface by a series of "feature creeping" (slowly adding features over time) or bite the bullet and do a full overhaul of the UI and risk alienating tons of customers. Apple is historically known to slowly add features over time and explain those features to it's customers in bite sized doses. For instance, on the surface OSX hasn't changed much from it's start. A person using OSX Panther (2003) could for the most part use Mountain Lion (2012) and get what they need done on it even though hundreds of new features have been added between OS updates. Another hot topic of debate in iOS land is the use of "skeuomorphism", A design element of a product that imitates design elements that were functionally necessary in the original product design, but which have become ornamental in the new design. Reportedly Steve Jobs was a big fan of these designs and in some aspects I can see why. It creates a warm, familiar vibe which visually helps inform users of what the app does. Forms of skeuomorphism exist throughout Apple's first party apps. Some are effective, whimsical and fun, while others are cheesy and just plain ugly. For example, the Notepad app looking like a notepad, the green felt gaming table in Game Center and all of the leather textures in apps like Find My Friends, which isn't technically skeuomorphism, but ugly nonetheless. With the passing of Jobs and the recent exiting of the last proponent of the "realistic" design philosophy, Scott Forstall, the rumors and speculation has already started if the newly appointed head of Human Interface (HI), Jony Ive will ditch the old homey designs for a more modern look. Ive, the head of hardware design at Apple for years and known for his industrial engineering chops and love of minimalist design is now in charge of both the look of the hardware as well as the software. I'm sure changes will be made but I wouldn't expect any major changes in iOS 7. 

DISTINGUISHING FEATURES

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Apple is a hardware driven company. They create services and experiences around their hardware that not only provides more value to each individual device sold but there is usually a lot of added value when their customers buy multiple Apple products. By doing this, both sides are happy (in theory), you purchase more hardware and they provide a better cohesive experience within the ecosystem. Apple is very good at integration, from iMessage, to Airplay, to Facetime, to file sharing using Airdrop, Siri and iCloud. It's everything I ever wanted Sony to do with their hardware but they never could quite figure it out. Using your iPad or iPhone to beam video to your 50 inch HDTV via the Apple TV to share with family is incredibly simple yet remarkable. PC/Android users will balk that they've been able to do this for years with a number of different protocols, but most of the implementations have been clunky and complicated enough that most people have never bothered with it. Airplay is so easy my grandma could figure it out after being shown once. With the release of OSX Mountain Lion, Airplay Mirroring has been brought to Mac laptops and iMacs allowing you to display your computer on your TV wirelessly. Very handy for those that have ditched cable subscriptions for online video only, aka "cord-cutters". You're able to watch Hulu.com, and all of the other major networks websites (ABC, NBC CBS) that stream their shows on computers only. At $99, the Apple TV is definitely the must have accessory if you own an iOS device. 

Siri is another distinguishing feature that was introduced in iOS 5 that brought voice controlled artificial intelligence to the mainstream. Even though she doesn't work as flawlessly as we hope she would, when she does it's pretty cool. Used to set reminders, alarms, read text messages, find restaurants and booking reservations, even looking up movie and sports facts and figures. The real magic of Siri is her ability to understand (most of the time) regular speech in context. No need to memorize special phrases to ask, Siri can understand what you want based on context. "What's the weather like tomorrow?", "Will it rain tomorrow?", "Will I need to bring an umbrella today?" will all give you the weather for the day you asked. Once Apple can take Siri's accuracy from 75% to a consistent 90% and keep updating her intelligence regularly (ahem...not yearly!) I think Siri will really change how we use and what we think of our phones.  

Overview

Apple, in the past 5 years has gone from a quirky computer company that made really cool music players to the largest and arguably the most influential consumer electronic company in the world. Since inception they've been an insular company mainly doing things the "Apple way" and the philosophy continues today. While often criticized for being a walled garden when it comes to their ecosystem, that strategy has seemed to work for them and their customers. If you're comfortable entering into Apple's sometimes constraining ecosystem Apple assures you that everything will "Just work". It's a silent pact that seems to be working so well that some competitors like Microsoft seem to be borrowing a few pages from. As long as Apple keeps providing an enjoyable experience for their users I don't see people leaving for the likes of Google's wild west anytime soon. And the thing about walled gardens, the longer you're there the harder it is to just pack up your stuff and leave.

GOOGLE

NEXUS 4, NEXUS 7, NEXUS 10

Out of the 3 major players, Google, Android specifically, is considered the maverick of the bunch. Apple's ecosystem to claustrophobic for you? Get an Android device. The iPhone is too small for you? Get an Android device. When it comes to choice and flexibility Android has it in spades. Expandable memory, removable batteries, various phone and tablet size choices, unlocked devices, open Google Play Store, you name it and someone has probably made it. But with all that freedom comes a price to the end user. Sometimes too much choice leaves customers confused and makes a brands message muddled. So Google has taken things into their own hands and have created a family of devices called Nexus, that provides the pure Android experience. 

The Nexus Phone has been around for a few years now, made by different manufacturers each iteration and often considered the holy grail of Android phones by serious Android fans because none of the usual manufacturers software skins are loaded on them. The Nexus devices tend to get the Android updates first and more timely than other Android phones (more on this later). While the Nexus phones are held in high regard their actual sales are relatively low when compared to the other Android flagship phones like the Samsung Galaxy S2 and S3. The first major Nexus success wasn't a phone at all, but a 7 inch tablet. The Nexus 7, released this summer and has gotten rave reviews across the tech industry for most bang for your buck tablet on the market ($199). Recently Asus announced they're selling close to 1 million Nexus 7's a month now. Riding the wave of that success, Google has just released the Nexus 10 (10 inch tablet) and the Nexus 4 phone. Both have gotten mixed reviews for very different reasons. 

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The Nexus 4 is a great looking device with all the modern bells and whistles you want from a phone at this time, except....4G LTE! Yes, Google's flagship phone being released in the Fall of 2012 doesn't have LTE capabilities. Ironically Android phones were some of the first phones on the market with LTE support last year. But wait, Google has a really good excuse. The phone will come unlocked and contract-free and will cost you only $299. It seems Google had to make some compromises with carriers in order to reach that feat and LTE was one of them. For some, the lack of LTE isn't a big deal, LTE isn't available in their area for their carrier so they're fine without it. But seeing how LTE should be almost fully rolled out across the US in 2013 this phone seems like a very niche device. The best thing the Nexus devices has going for it is that it runs on the latest and greatest version of Android 4.2. It's a tough choice if you're already on a LTE phone to move to the Nexus 4.

Update: Apparently LTE isn't that big of a deal for a lot of people, Google has sold out of their initial shipment. No officials numbers have been released.

As of yet, there hasn't been a 10 inch Android tablet that has even come close to competing with Apple's iPad in the hardware or sales department. Google plans to change that with the recent release of the Nexus 10. With a 2560-x-1600 resolution 10.1 inch screen (higher resolution than the iPad), speedy processor, 9 hour battery life and running the latest version of Android 4.2 makes it a worthy tablet for Android users. The caveat that still pains all Android tablets since the beginning is the tablet app selection. From the beginning Android was made to automatically scale apps to fit any screen size. Which is the opposite of what Apple's iOS does, which requires developers to make specific apps for each iOS device size. It makes more work for the app creators but a better experience for the end-user. What happens on large Android tablets is that you get an app that was designed for a 4-5 inch phone but is now being stretched out on a 10 inch tablet and there are sometimes lots of unused white space. Apple likes to point this distinction out at their press conferences.

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GOOGLE SERVICES

Google's web services is where the company leverages it's unparalleled suite of apps and services and really flexes it's ecosystem muscle. From Google search, Google Maps, Google Docs (now Google Drive), Gmail, Youtube, Picasa, Google Chrome and Google+, Google has a compelling case to make of why you should be under their umbrella. It's hard to be on the internet in 2012 and not use a Google product. Unlike Apple and in some ways Microsoft, Google makes money from eyeballs on their software products via advertising, not necessarily hardware so they have an interest to provide their apps on as many platforms as possible. Which is why you can use almost all of Google services on an iPhone and almost certainly Windows Phone 8 soon. But of course the best integration of the ecosystem will definitely be when you're using an Android device. A great example of how pervasive Google is in most peoples lives, when Apple released iOS 6 and dumped Google Maps from their devices and replaced it with their buggy Apple Maps, the screams of outrage were heard around the web. People love their Google Maps, and Apple was forced to issue an apology and recommend their customers use Google Maps via the web until a proper Google Maps app is available in the App store to Apple users.

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Google Drive (Formally called Google Docs) is Google's answer to Cloud services. You can install the Google Drive app on any Android, PC, Mac or Apple device. It acts as a hard drive in the cloud that syncs automatically and lets you access any file or document on all of your devices, even from a web browser. Google gives you 5GB for free, 25GB for $2.49 per month, 100GB for $4.99 per month and 1TB for $49.99 per month. Upgrading to one of these tiers will also upgrade your Gmail storage as well, which is great if you're an email hoarder like myself. Users can also privately share files and documents to other Google users or to anyone for that matter via a link. Google Drive also lets you view video files via any browser in a Youtube like player once uploaded. Very cool. Google allows some offline use of Google Docs. In a Chrome browser only, a user is able to edit documents when offline but not via mobile. All types of documents and spreadsheets are viewable offline on mobile but the only editing allowed is starring files and folders unfortunately. Google Drive is a main component of Google's low-cost, web based, Chromebook laptops. Google Drive isn't as seamless and integrated in to the OS as Apple's iCloud but it's more robust when it comes to moving files around. It's more of a virtual hard drive than a syncing/backup solution.

MULTIMEDIA

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The Google Play Store, formally known as the Android Marketplace, has become more robust than ever in the past year but it still lags behind iTunes in just sheer amount of content. iTunes has been the king of the digital content mountain but Google Play and Amazon has definitely gained a lot of steam and have significantly narrowed the gap. What the Google Play Store lacks in amount of data or HD content, they make up (somewhat) in services and features. For instance, Google allows it's users to upload up to 20,000 songs to a digital locker that allows them to stream them from any of their Android devices and the web. Apple charges $25/year for this same capability with iTunes Match (iTunes scans your hard drive, no uploading required for songs already in iTunes). Google Play is also a web store which makes it lighter and more convenient than iTunes and also has nice sharing features integrated with their social network Google+. iTunes still has a lot of little music based features that comes with the benefit of having an actual desktop client, but Google is definitely continuing to add features like auto-generated instant mixes, that released today, similar to Apple's Genius mixes.

APPS/OS

Explaining the state of Google's App Store is a multifaceted, somewhat confusing thing to do. On one hand it's worked (mostly) through it's early growing pains of being the second class app citizen, something Windows Phone 8 store is currently experiencing, and is now getting most new apps at the same time or shortly after iOS. Not to mention the confusion of all of the different Android compatible stores from Amazons, Verizons (which closed last week), and all of the other places to download Android apps on the web. Granted some see this as a perk of an "open OS" but to the average user it's more of a headache and confusing, not to mention it opens users up to the possibility of downloading malware. Which leads me to the largest problem facing the Google ecosystem, fragmentation. Since Android is an open platform, meaning Google doesn't charge manufacturers to use their software, they have little control on how and when the carriers or hardware makers roll out the updates that Google releases. That's in contrast to Apple who from the start insisted on getting full control of software updates when negotiating with the cellular carriers. When a software update is released, Apple determines which devices will be supported and which features will work with said devices. On Android when Google releases an update the phone manufacturers take that code and create custom code on top of it (Samsung's Sense for example) that goes through it's own development cycle and takes time to get released if they bother to release it at all. Below is a chart taken from Google's Android development page from Nov. 1st 2012 showing how the different versions of Android is distributed amongst their users.

As you can see, 60% of Android users are still running Gingerbread 2.3 - 2.3.2 which is now 2 years old, and less than 1% of users are running the most current Jelly Bean 4.1 (which has since been updated to 4.2). Just take a quick look at Google search and you'll find tons of links like "When is Jelly Bean coming to my phone". It's definitely frustrating for lots of users who otherwise love the OS and the openess it brings in software and hardware when compared to the likes of Apple who takes an "our way or the highway" approach to mobile computing. Android has gone through several revisions, and UI changes over the past few years which adds another layer of confusion to unsophisticated users. Between a typical 2 year contract cycle and depending on if your phone received any updates or not, you could've missed out on major functionality and UI changes and not be familiar with the latest OS when you go in for your next smartphone. It's hard to tell if this has any effect on customer retention of satisfaction but it can't be helping. The biggest problem in fragmentation is developers not being able to take advantage of new APIs (Application Programming Interface) which gives software developers access to certain features or hardware that is baked into the OS or handset. As a developer if a new API is released, you wouldn't create software or features in your app that was central to that API because most users would not have access to it. That potentially slows down software innovation. Google has tried and promised to make the update process better but the carriers and handset makers aren't making it easy, which is why I'm guessing Google decided to push their Nexus hardware in a effort to put pressure on manufacturers to update their hardware more timely. Speaking of developers, piracy is a huge problem on Android as well. That's why some developers have to either reduce the price of apps on the platform to try to entice people to buy it or just not bother putting it on Android at all. Another reason why high caliber games like "Infinity Blade" are only released on iOS.

I've touched on the tablet app problem earlier in the Nexus 10 section so I won't harp on it, but it is a real problem. The auto-scaling in theory sounded like a great idea when you're dealing with 4 - 6 inch phones but once you move up to 9-10 inches, the software needs to be re-thought. Simply making everything bigger isn't always the best solution. Although Google can't necessarily fix this issue by themselves (it's up to developers) they're doing what they can by providing nice hardware that people actually want to buy. But just like Microsoft's Surface RT, will people pay for a tablet before there is actual tablet software on the device? Granted Android tablets are in a better position than the Surface RT at least having phone apps to run, it's not much better. 

DISTINGUISHING FEATURES

Choice. What ever your needs are there is probably a device available running Android on it. 4 inch? 5 inch? Keyboard? SD slot? Laptop? It's available. And this is why Android will probably always be around in some form or fashion. Another example of choice is in software. Since Android has the ability to sideload software that may not be available in the Google Play Store you can literally download any type of Android compatible app you want on your phone from anywhere. Granted, for the unexperienced downloading software not on the official Google Store could be a dangerous game. Even when using the Google Play Store there is a slight chance of downloading malicious software, which has increased in the past year. Buyer beware, with an open platform comes great responsibility. Malware hasn't really been much of a problem for most people who are just using the official channels to download apps but because Google isn't nearly as strict on policing what apps are available on their store as say iTunes is, sometimes bad stuff slips through the cracks.

One of the best distinguishing features Android has going for it is Google Now. Google Now is definitely one of the coolest features on Android devices running 4.1 or higher. It's a glimpse of what we can expect from our devices in the future. Since Google already knows so much about you from Gmail, your web searches, your location (the phone) it can effectively predict information you may need. From telling you the weather and if there will be traffic as you head out to work, to telling you your favorite sports team score, or what the best dishes are in the restaurant you're eating in. It's really amazing software (and slightly creepy at first) when it works. Google also integrated it's voice search into Google Now so you can speak commands, searches etc. and it'll spit out answers, incredibly fast. This was Google's answer to Apple's Siri and in many ways they've surpassed Siri already. 

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Google TV started off as a potentially game changing product but was mostly crippled by the big media companies who blocked most of their content from running on the hardware. It was designed to search content online and stored locally on your computer and DVR all in a unified interface that over-layed on your TV. When companies like Hulu, ABC, and NBC blocked their content from being played on the device Google took things into its own hands and used it's own content to pipe into the media streamer, including content from the Google Play Store, Youtube and others, similar to Apple TV. Granted this wasn't what the vision of Google TV initially was, but given the current climate all media streaming devices are facing with traditional content providers it's going to be a long hard fight to democratize television content. While Google has opened up app development on Google TV unlike Apple, there hasn't been anything created yet that has really separated Google TV from the other media streaming devices on the market. 

OVERVIEW

In many ways Google is the perfect "Ying" to Apple's "Yang". They're open, Apple is closed. Apple makes money from hardware, Google makes money from advertising in their software. Google's demographic leans more towards engineers while Apple's leans more towards artists. If Apple's neighborhood is a well manicured suburb, Google's is the wild west. There are definite overlaps but both are needed to push each other in ways they may not naturally go. Since 4.1 Google has finally found it's stride and their OS and app store has hit a maturity level that's on par with Apple and to some, it has surpassed the veteran mobile OS. Some verson of Android is now running on about 75% of the smartphones in the world, that's a lot of potential power. If Google can manage to get a hold of their OS situation so they can have a majority of their users using the most latest software and features they will be in a similar situation Microsoft was in during the 90's with the PC market, a time when Apple was relegated to a niche market. Of course all factors are not the same in this situation but it could turn out similar if Google pulled in the reigns just a little.  

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

All three companies have their benefits and limitations. It all comes down to personal preferences and needs. Should you invest into one ecosystem or choose companies that are more ecosystem agnostic like Google, Amazon, and in some ways, Microsoft. When looking at the current landscape, more companies are having to become ecosystem agnostic, mostly out of necessity, all the while building up their ecosystems hoping customers eventually choose them for other services to take advantage of the better integration. Apple seems to be the only company that can stay insular and make you buy Apple products to play with Apple stuff, mainly because 90% of their business is the hardware. Do you use a Mac computer, buy your music and books from Amazon and use Google web services? Or do you go all in with Microsoft and Windows 8 or Apple with OSX and iOS? These are decisions that we're being forced to make more and more and the longer we stay in a specific ecosystem the harder it will be to leave and switch to another. After spending hundreds of dollars in iTunes on movies, music and TV shows and another few hundred on apps for your families iPhones and iPads how do you just switch to Microsoft's ecosystem without eating a lot of that and having to re-buy a lot of that content and software? These companies know this and are vying for your heart and wallets. Expect much more interoperability between devices and services as they try to make it so comfortable that you never want to leave.