Ecosystems: One Of The Next Big Things

So as the smoke clears from the Microsoft-Nokia deal, one word stands out – Ecosystem.  Microsoft and Nokia outright discussed of creating an Ecosystem of technology in the mobile space.

"Plans for a broad strategic partnership with Microsoft to build a new global mobile ecosystem; Windows Phone would serve as Nokia’s primary smartphone platform."

This doesn't surprise me in the least.  The reason for my lack of shock is that the importance and interest in building technical ecosystems of products has been building for awhile.  It's been heading this direction for years -  several companies bilding ecosystems of products and services.

What are these ecosystems?  I ask the question because the word gets bandied about with little explanation.  My definition of technical ecosystems is: a unified set of technologies that function smoothly, work seamlessly, and provide a specific set off functions (even if that set is "personal computing).  I'm not sure that's the best definition, but it's good enough until some expert comes along and makes a better one.

The king of the ecosystems is, of course, Apple.  Apple has produced a series of products that work together, share a unified sense of design and functionality, and provide a great deal of power.  These products are in turn backed up by their own ecosystem of stores, online help, and so forth.  Of course right now everyone wants to be like Apple (or their idea of Apple).

Microsoft has been trying (in my opinion, poorly) to build an ecosystem of products in fits and starts.  It has the PC system, the phone system, the XBox, and a few services like Zune.  Working with Nokia may accelerate the process.

Sony has been talking making the PS3 a kind of central home system.  They're working with android phones and game-phones, and a game delivery platform.  Hell, they're talking about pulling their music from iTunes for what is apparently their own efforts.  Not a lot of actual result, but something is there.

This is discounting minor ecosystems, like Apple's Kindle-web ecosystem.  I suspect Samsung has plans of their own.  For that matter, the more you look, the more you see the ecosystem model being applied in some kind of techno-cultural zeitgeist.

Why is this trend popular?  I'd say because right now, it works:

  • It is a consumer-friendly approach – at least in theory.  Things work smoothly and effectively in ecosystems, repairs and replacements are easy, code and downloads are validated, and so on.  Take it from someone who moved from Windows to Apple, it's hard to beat that sense of effectiveness.
  • It has the potential to be a money and time-saving approach.  No running around to get DVDs, just stream it through your ecosystem.  Need new software, just download it from the App Store, all reliably tested and guaranteed.  Need a repair, just take it to your local Whatever Store.  This saves time on support and setup – which is friendly to both your average person and to large companies.
  • Technically it may be easier.  If you have a limited set of technologies to deal with (and especially hardware) then it's easier to innovate and fix things.
  • It is, in theory, secure because of a unified approach, easy updates, and good planning.  Again let me express as an Apple user that's a major selling point.
  • It's due to spreading technology.  More and more people need to use computing devices or want to.  These people are not always people who are as tolerant as long-term computer users when it comes to problems.
  • It's trendy.  Apple has set the example, Apple is doing well, and people want to make money.
  • It's cultural.  The ecosystems are really something that's in our cultural heritage – they're pure sci-fi work-everywhere technology.  We expect it and now we're getting it.  Face it, people don't watch Star Trek episodes where Picard has to reboot the Enterprise.

Ecosystems are coming into their own due to a kind of perfect storm.  What does that mean for us progeeks?  That's for next column . . .

Steven Savage