I came online in 1992 as an operator of CompuServe forums. That era is long gone, but in its heyday CompuServe was the most important online network. Those of us who worked in CompuServe witnessed an amazing trend in the early 90s: Our users acquired home computers for the sole purpose of getting online. The traditional justification for investing in a computer -- running installed applications for managing finances or writing documents -- was overthrown in a conceptual shift. People started relating to the computer as a terminal.
That shift represented the biggest ecosystem displacement of the digital era -- the online realm overlaying its features and values atop the offline realm. Other walled gardens existed like islands in the oceanic pre-web internet: Genie, Delphi, America Online, and over a hundred-thousand BBS communities. In CompuServe we could see America Online placing strategic ecosystem bets as it strove to essentially be the internet: service-wide IM, voracious content licensing deals, family-friendly accounts, a closed approach to the internet at large. We saw the juggernaut roaring up behind us, and in 1997 CompuServe was gobbled up.
America Online won the walled-garden ecosystem wars during an era when the primary ecohub was the web portal. The portal era gave way to the social platform era, with Facebook as the most commanding ecohub. Facebook's ecosystem power has persuaded major publishers and micro ecosystems (Pinterest, Airbnb, Huffington Post) to incorporate some level of branded Facebook service such as Open Graph or Facebook comments.
During Facebook's ascendance, a competing user-experience priority is laying claim to ecohub primacy: Mobile. This clash, in which users care first about the device which anchors their internet experience, poses sharp challenges to Facebook's product development and business prospects. A user choosing between iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Blackberry as the center of his digital lifestyle is up for grabs as an ecosystem customer by Apple, Google, Microsoft, and RIM. Facebook, which does not monetize mobile well yet, loses value in that user whichever the choice. As with America Online's 90s triumphs, Facebook's ecosystem bets are suffering in changing tides. Meanwhile, Amazon is scrambling to be a full-fledged ecosystem operator in the portable era with the Fire, a handheld portal for Amazon media purchases.
Investments and loyalty
Consumers define themselves by their ecosystem investments no less than companies. For example, choosing a mobile OS encapsulates a choice of app selection, store registration, media DRM, and more. Some parts of this lock-in can be broken, and the most experienced users live in an overlapping matrix of ecosystems that hinge into each other. A dedicated Amazon book buyer who carries an iPad and uses the iOS Kindle app? There's overlap.
Loyalty breakage notwithstanding, big business has understood for a long time that ecosystem buy-in is the ticket to gigantic success. (Gillette: Give away the razor; sell the blades.) Apple is arguably the ecosystem champ, whose blockbuster financial performance is largely attributable to its octopus-like control of content, e-commerce, and developer networks within its portable-device highway system.
One case study delivers a vital ecosystem lesson. The iPod was late to the MP3-player game and lacked standard features of existing devices. But the most important element of the iPod phenomenon was its integration with the iTunes music store. (Winning industrial design didn't hurt.) iTunes integration, importantly, dragged record labels into the digital age. The resulting DRM of music tracks was a bad, even regressive deal for customers, who were forced to replace dead iPods with new Apple playback devices. Even the stone-age CD era didn't force users to buy the same make of CD player over and over. But consumers happily traded purchasing freedom for an easy entrance to digital music. ("I can go digital. I can go portable. I can go legal. And it all works together beautifully.")
Here's the lesson: Consumers. Love. Ecosystems. Digital purists preach open standards and interoperability, but the mass market doesn't particularly like making choices. Decisions require learning. Solutions encourage adoption. The ecosystem wars, from America Online ("So easy to use, no wonder it's number one!") to Apple ("The internet in your pocket."), are framed by providing the most far-reaching, systemic, and easily applied solution to living life online.
Convenience vs. choice
That is the essential fulcrum of a product landscape in which primary decisions (e.g. which phone to buy) result in many secondary experiences (connected features and services). In the mainstream this is all good, a happy marriage between what most people want -- ease of use across services -- and the business success of bonding customers to a brand in all its extensions and partnerships. Not so much for the early-adopting, feature-discriminating, à la carte digital expert who values granular choice and revolts against forced opt-out. Jailbreaking, DRM-stripping, and other guerrilla tactics are escapes from ecosystem locks.
Beyond these two camps, though, I think it is really about a deeper, holistic choice. That is the case for me, even though I fashion myself an anti-ecosystem consumer. I generally dislike Apple's severe lock-ins (see the next paragraph for details), but I enjoy the feeling of Amazon's collar, and will certainly buy a Fire when it becomes satisfactory for my needs. We choose ecosystems, and the secondary results of those choices follow us around like the daemons in The Golden Compass. The ecosystem is the product. When we argue the merits of iPhone vs. Android vs. Windows Phone vs. BlackBerry, we are swinging punches heavily freighted with bundles of features and experiences.
Back to WiBG: I am Windows (computers), iOS (iPad), BlackBerry (still a great email device), Google (Gmail and many of its connected services). Those are the pillars of my personal ecosystem, but it gets complicated. Naturally I use Facebook and Twitter, but spend more time on SoundCloud than all other social environments combined. Rhapsody remains my primary listening service, but I don't ignore Spotify and that ilk of social platforms. I am loyal Kindle book buyer, but my v.1 Kindle is dead and I've replaced it with iOS and Windows apps. My main cloud service, with heavy reliance, is Dropbox, but the product is no longer breakthrough and the storage restriction is becoming obsolete. I see Microsoft making a well-played maneuver with the Hotmail / Outlook transformation and its connection to SkyDrive. Like many others I am increasingly eco-hinged.
I also have a wife and two dogs and a house and a job. But hell -- first things first: I am WiBG.
Brad Hill is the VP, Audience Development at AOL. He is the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc.