When Tech Companies Hold Us Hostage

How tech’s deepening ecosystems could limit consumer choice.

Being an Apple fanboy is great and all — until you can’t get out.

At the company’s keynote this week, Apple unveiled a remarkable feature called “Continuity,” which allows for better communication between its products. Start an email on your Mac desktop or laptop and you can finish it on your phone with the press of a button. Answer a call from your iPhone on your Mac. Send a text from your laptop. It’s all quick and seamless, provided you’re exclusively using Apple devices.

As Walt Mossberg pointed out over at Recode, this is a calculated move with a single aim: “keeping you in Apple World”:

To my mind, the overwhelming theme at WWDC was that your digital life can be better if your phone, tablet and laptop all have the familiar Apple logo. Unlike in the past, it wasn’t just about a better laptop operating system, or a better phone-and-tablet platform. It was all about the advantages you get if you use Apple hardware, software and services for everything.

The biggest new features were about making iPhones, iPads and Macs work seamlessly together, so that people on Planet Apple have no reason to leave, and those toting other brands might be tempted to fully join the Apple tribe.

Continuity is the latest and perhaps the most dramatic sign of tech’s deepening focus on ecosystems, in which individual consumer choices end up slyly forcing users into a unified walled garden of software and hardware controlled by just one tech giant. Matt Buchanan explained this phenomenon last year over at the New Yorker:

What people are choosing is less an iPhone 5s over a Moto X than an entire digital ecosystem that surrounds and permeates their life, and which will affect every other piece of technology that they buy. Not only are these decisions becoming more divorced from the traditional product cycle — it’s increasingly difficult for reviewers to fully evaluate these ecosystems as they grow deeper, more personalized, and more dependent on the technologies used by someone’s social circle.

Consumer brand loyalty is nothing new, especially in the world of consumer electronics. Mock tensions between Apple and Android “fangirls” and “fanboys” have been around as long as the devices themselves. But as two or three tech giants up the incentives for you to stay inside their ecosystem — or raise the costs of leaving — things are starting to feel different. Proud allegiance can start to feel a little more like a hostage situation.

Take last month’s “iMessage purgatory” bug, which made it virtually impossible for certain users who’ve switched from iPhone to Android to receive texts from other iPhone users. Problems like this are unique to branded ecosystems, which may ultimately force users to stay faithful to their chosen brand or be penalized by a rocky switching process.

Other ecosystem tensions are beginning to reveal themselves, especially inside families, as one CNET writer chronicled last March when he attempted to switch from an iPhone to Android:

Everyone in my immediate and even extended family has an iPhone. Text messages that previously arrived via iMessage didn’t come through unless the sender re-sent them using SMS (assuming they knew to do as much). My son couldn’t text me at all anymore from his iPod Touch — not unless we both switched to a third-party texting app.

Similarly, I could no longer use Find My Friends to keep tabs on my wife and kids. (Once you go Big Father, it’s hard to go back.) Another casualty: FaceTime. So much for video chats with my folks down in Florida. I wasn’t about to ask them to start using Skype just for me.

While third-party apps help to alleviate some of these problems, expect the biggest tech companies to continue to dig in. Google’s cheap and increasingly reliable Chromebook laptops are starting to take off, and essentially force each convert to use the Google suite of productivity tools. And if you want to make real use of Google’s intuitive personal assistant program, Google Now, you’ll need to have an Android phone and stay inside the Google software ecosystem.

Just this week, Apple announced Family Sharing, a program that will effectively tie families who use it even tighter to their Apple devices and purchases through a shared credit card. It includes wildly useful and comprehensive features that might be especially hard for a parents to turn down when it comes time to purchasing or re-up a new set of phones.

For now, this is still a relatively low-stakes issue for the average consumer; it’s far from impossible to successfully switch between ecosystems — for example, I’m somewhat locked into Apple’s software, but use most of Google’s productivity tools. But as our devices continue to assume and replace crucial functions in our lives and shape our very identities, these deepening ecosystems may hamper our ability to simply go out and choose the very best product. And while the walled gardens will do well to retain users for the foreseeable future, holding your users captive to one large and complex ecosystem leaves them vulnerable to disruption. Remember back on the early internet how good it felt to suddenly realize there was a whole world outside of AOL’s browser?

At the end of his piece, Mossberg cautions that “the unifying software foundation Apple unveiled today will only work if its next round of hardware devices is truly compelling” and he’s not wrong. Especially now, when the Google, Windows, and Apple ecosystems are more similar than they are different, hardware and software have to give users equally compelling reasons to stay.

But I’m not certain that will always be the case. It’s possible our marriage to these ecosystems will become one of convenience and it’s not hard to imagine a future where your devices are nothing more than a tether to a choice that you can hardly remember making between big brands.

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