At the moment, the wireless world is dominated by three major players. Google, Apple, and Microsoft have all built arrays of services and features around their respective platforms: Apple’s iTunes, Google Play, and Microsoft’s Marketplace are the mainstays. Secondary offerings also play an important role, like Apple’s iCloud and AppleTV integration, Google’s comprehensive set of web-based productivity apps like Gmail, and Microsoft’s Office and Xbox suites. The landscape is awash in brand names and service marks.
These company-specific sets of features have come to be referred to as “ecosystems.” It’s an apt title, because we’re not just talking about a proprietary app store anymore. Buying an Android or iOS or WP7 smartphone isn’t just a choice between what user interface or hardware to live with for two years; it’s deciding what set of services offered by the maker of that phone suits you best. If you’re a heavy user of Google’s Gmail, Calendar and Drive, for example, you’re already plugged in to the Google ecosystem; an Android phone would likely be a good fit for you. If you prefer SkyDrive and Microsoft Office and own an Xbox, Windows Phone might be a better choice because it offers tighter integration. You get the idea.
Part of the reason companies are so invested in building and maintaining rich, vibrant ecosystems is what I’ll call the “lock-in factor.” Like any company, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have a massive interest in keeping you “locked in” to their version of the mobile experience; the longer you spend as an iPhone user, the more money Apple will get in app sales percentage and new iPhones. The longer you spend as an Android user, the more time your eyeballs will dwell on ads served up by Google. And so on. So companies like these have a lot of incentive to keep you on board, and as a result, they race each other for developer support, and fight over who has better devices, and so on. It’s competition; it keeps everyone sharp; it’s a good thing.
… until the inevitable day they take it too far.
Looking at it from a user’s perspective, though, it feels a bit like entrapment. “I really like how my iPhone syncs with iTunes automatically over the air, and I love Siri, but I’m really intrigued by what Google’s doing with Drive and SkyMap,” says the hypothetical iPhone customer with the weirdest-ever set of app priorities. “I feel like moving to Android, but I’ve already spent so much money stocking my iPhone with apps.”
The italicized portion is exactly what makes the ecosystem model work as a retention device. No matter how alluring another platform’s capabilities or features are, money-conscious users will always give a second thought to abandoning a platform they’ve invested money in. The dream of upgrading to a Galaxy S III may be intriguing -mouthwatering, even- but the spectre of re-buying all the apps they already have on their iPhone is often too much to bear.
This is a real phenomenon, and it’s one that intrigues me, as I stand apart from it. I’m a restless mobile phone user, and have been consistently changing smartphone platforms since I bought my first Blackberry in 2004. Thing is, I’ve never tracked the costs associated with those platform jumps. This maybe indicates a less-than-healthy set of spending habits, but it also gives me an opportunity to do an informal analysis of this trend for the first time. Let’s see what kind of fun we can have here.
First, here’s a disclaimer. This is the very definition of an anecdotal, unscientific study, and is for illustrative purposes only. As I mentioned, though I’m a mobile-technology obsessive, I’m not a huge purchaser of apps. I tend to find a handful I like and stick with what works. I’m not anything more than a casual gamer, so I’m not abandoning hundreds of dollars in Gameloft titles with every ecosystem switch. I’m also not a newly-minted smartphone user who wouldn’t know an app from an appetizer, though – I reside somewhere right in the middle. Your mileage will certainly vary. Finally, this “study” was confined to smartphone apps; I didn’t account for tablet applications in this brief analysis, nor did I address the cost of hardware accessories, like cases and chargers.
So our data should be spot on!
According to my Galaxy Nexus, I have about 70 apps installed which did not come stock with the device. I happen to have a Windows Phone handy, as well as a solid connection to iTunes, so I decided to shop around and see what would happen if I jumped from Android to either competing ecosystem.
First, though, I wanted to calculate my total expenditure of money in the Android App Market thus far. Though I’ve been an Android user several times over the past few years (reference my above statement about restless tendencies), I’ve only had the Galaxy Nexus since January. In five months, I’ve downloaded 70+ apps to my device, and have spent a grand total of $11.32.
You read that correctly. In the time I’ve owned this Galaxy Nexus, I’ve spent a little over two dollars per month on apps. That’s it.
I’m as surprised as you. Let me reiterate: though I may not be a power user, I’m not a light user, either. I use third-party apps every day, and multiple times a day.
Armed with knowledge of my apparent cheapskate tendencies, I decided to hop over to the Windows Phone Marketplace and see what kind of money I’d have to spend to get the same or similar functionality out of my device. Now, since the WP7 Marketplace is decidedly smaller than either of its competing app stores, I couldn’t replicate the total set of capabilities I had on my Galaxy Nexus. Where third-party apps were available that took the place of stock functionality on Android, I factored those in. Still, I came up a bit short as far as raw capability, but that’s something anyone switching platforms will have to live with.
The brass tacks: switching to Windows Phone would cost me $8.56 in re-purchased apps. If you factor in the “sunk costs” of my already-purchased Android apps, that’s $19.88. I was shocked to discover this. Less than $20 (more than half of which was already spent) in an “ecosystem tax?” That’s madness. Much less than I expected.
Well, I thought, maybe that’s because I just couldn’t find enough apps to satisfy my needs in the Windows Phone Marketplace. So what about switching to an iPhone?
I hopped over to iTunes and did some faux shopping around. To replicate the same feature set I had on my Galaxy Nexus was predictably much easier in the iOS App Store. Though it still left a lot to be desired in Google-specific aspects, I could find a direct replacement for almost every other app I needed.
Switching to an iPhone would have cost me $5.54, or $16.86 when sunk costs were factored in.
Just like with the Windows Phone results, I was flabbergasted. After all the hooting/hollering/pacing/nail-biting about changing platforms, we’re talking about less than an Andrew Jackson in app costs?
This will help me save up for that Duke Nukem Soundboard I’ve been wanting!
In my case, the reason for all the money not leaving my pockets seems to be my affinity for “mainstream” apps like Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, FourSquare, etc., all of which are free. Sure, other third-party apps trail along in their wake, offering better UIs and feature sets and so forth but many of those apps are free, as well. Even robust transit apps that give me everything I need for pinpoint tracking of my local buses, and then some, cost nothing. Some aren’t even ad-supported. After going through the list, I wondered how some app developers were making money at all. When apps weren’t free (or, frequently in the case of Windows Phone, not available), equivalents were available that cost very little.
Obviously, this won’t hold true for those with highly specialized application needs. If your day job demands that you buy a $200 aviation sectional app, or your bird-watching hobby means you need a handful of $30 robin-sighting guides, you’re going to be much more careful if and when you decide to find another mobile sanctuary (see what I did there?).
Bird-watching is serious business.
But I think I’ve got my finger on the pulse of the mythical “common user,” and this imagined person is very little like the mobile-tech fanatics who fret about the cost of changing ecosystems. The common user I know hunts for free apps, or if money must absolutely be spent, the cheapest ones available. And when something new and shiny comes along that he or she must have -be it a Nokia Lumia 900 or a Samsung Galaxy S III or an iPhone 4S- the jump is going to be made, regardless of potential app costs. Though the current economic climate has made everyone a bit more cautious when doling out dollars, I don’t believe that the majority of people are thinking about app costs when they’re salivating over a hot new piece of hardware in a retail store. Best of all: if you’re like me, it won’t be that expensive anyway.
Until you become a pilot, or take up bird watching. Then it gets costly.
Do you disagree? Sure you do. Leave a comment below and tell me how wrong I am, or just make fun of my apps list below.
Michael Fisher’s Android Apps as of May 2012: Amazon, Amazon Kindle, AndroZip, Angry Birds, Angry Birds Space, ASTRO, Bank of America, Battery Widget, Boston BusMap, Box, c:geo, Chase, Checkbook (free), Chrome Beta, Cracked Lite, TR-580 Tricorder, Drive, Earth, eBay, Eventbrite, Evernote, F18 Carrier Landing, Facebook, Fandango, Flashlight, Foursquare, Gmail, Goggles, Google Sky Map, Google Voice, Instagram, Layar, LCARS, Light Grid, Link Shortener for Tiny URL, LinkedIn, Meme Generator, Meme Maker, Netflix, Oregon Settler, Pandora, PayPal, Picasso, QR Droid, Quadrant Standard, Retro Camera, Shazam, Skyfire, Skype, Speed Test, Spotify, Star Trek Message Sounds, Star Trek Soundboard, Stitcher, Sundroid Free, SuperGNES Lite, TM World Clock, TripCase, TuneSync, Twitter, UNPACKED, WakeTube, Wallet, WeatherBug, Words Free, Yelp, Zipcar.