Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ecosystems

I gather that a lot of the talk at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) this year has been about ecosystems.  The major competing ecosystems at the moment are Apple, Google/Android, Microsoft Windows and Amazon.  I find it difficult to really compare and contrast these ecosystems because their business models and philosophies are quite different.  But I think it's important to consider ecosystems when talking about gadgets these days.  You're not just buying a gadget, you're more often than not buying into an ecosystem.  Ideally, as far as the company is concerned, your ties to that ecosystem may well last long after the particular gadget has met its end, preferably in a sound recycling program ;)

I'm currently straddling all four.  I have a Mac, iPhone and iPad.  I realized when I recently went back to iPhone after about 2 years with Android how easy it was to slip back into the Apple ecosystem with my phone.  Apple's ecosystem is built around hardware.  They create software and content largely to encourage hardware purchases.  So, new hardware is easily integrated into the ecosystem.  Apple helpfully synced my new iPhone with iPhone/iPod and iPad apps I'd already bought for other devices.  Now, iCloud promises to sync music, photos and docs across my Apple devices.  I have to say, technology can be almost painless when you drink the Apple Koolaid.  This is ease of use and integration is why a lot of people, including Windows and Android advocates, suggest that Apple is often the safe choice.

But what happens to the part of my life that's firmly embedded in the Google ecosystem?  I rely on Gmail both for email and account integration.  I use Google docs, calendar, blogger, groups, etc.  I also have a fair number of Google Android apps.  The Google/Android ecosystem is largely based on software and content.  So it will run on a large number of devices.  Most Google products run on Apple devices fairly well.

What surprised me was that many didn't run on the Kindle Fire.  The Kindle Fire is built on Android but it's designed to entrench users into the Amazon ecosystem NOT Google/Android.  For Amazon, it's really about content.  They create hardware to sell their content.  So, while you can run a number of Android apps on it successfully, some of Google's competing apps won't even install.  While there are workarounds for those of us who are truly dedicated, I think the best user experience for Kindle users comes when they're using Amazon-approved content.

I've had friends express concern about Nook since it's outside these dominant ecosystems and the future of Barnes & Noble and Kobo are uncertain.  Can they withstand the Amazon juggernaut? I honestly don't know.    Since these e-readers support EPUB, you will continue to have content for as long as that format remains.  I expect it will easily outlive the current generation of e-readers.  Yet, the concern about the ecosystem remains.  On the one hand, how many e-books should you buy from vendors who may not be around in 5 years?  On the other hand, if people stop buying their e-books, their death spiral will be certain.

What about our library ecosystem, which is designed to support content across devices?  One of my librarian colleagues, Melora Ranney Norman, recently opined on Facebook that she wished Nook would become the library-friendly e-reader.  That would certainly make our jobs easier wouldn't it, if we only had one device or family of devices to support.  But it also got me thinking about how to make any device library-friendly.  Why not create our own ecosystem?  And even if we can't control the hardware, couldn't we come up with some ideas on how to optimize as many devices as possible for a library ecosystem?  Imagine a collection of apps that would allow a library user to easily locate materials of interest from his/her library, download library and/or public domain e-books and read them, listen to audiobooks or music from the library, perhaps watch selected videos from a library YouTube channel....  And, of course, one of my fantasies, interact with other library fans.  One problem with this is that it requires a comfort level among library staff with a wide range of devices and ecosystems, if only to be able to advise patrons on what they need to make their device library-friendly.  I think that's why I'm so taken with the Douglas County Library Systems rebate program to get e-readers in the hands of library staff.

What do you think?  Could we make a viable library ecosystem?

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