The Myth of Digital Ecosystem

Ahad Chowdhury
Oct 17, 2018 · 8 min read

How well does the idea of an ecosystem of devices and services hold up in 2018?

Image courtesy: an article describing the comfort of the Apple ecosystem. Ironic, isn't it?

One of my closest friends has an absolutely mind-boggling superpower, that has taken some other friends of mine by a huge shock during mid-September this year — he can defend the most indefensible actions of the tech-giant Apple.

Sure, there are your regular Apple fanboys who you can see blindly arguing for Apple’s decisions on sites like Reddit, Twitter and YouTube (channels like Tailosive Tech and Front Page Tech come to mind). These people can go on for hours on how Apple has been a visionary and/or revolutionary company that has churned out nothing but superb devices that are each a timeless piece of engineering prowess, even after the demise of its co-founder Steve Jobs.

And then there is this guy, my old buddy.

828p is a fine resolution for a 6.1" display in 2018, because 326 pixels per-inch is plenty for the eyes of the non-tech-nerd commoners.

Not including a fast-charger with a smartphone was a good call, because a fast charger would reduce the longevity of the phone’s battery.

3 GB of RAM on a smartphone is enough, because: optimization (!).

And, of course:

You only bash Apple products, because you can’t afford Apple products.

At this point, we’re not sure if he has taken his Apple “fanboyhood” to a cult-status.

But all of his pro-Apple arguments, ranging from virtually irrefutable to simply hilarious, are based on one statement that he believes to his core:

The convenience of the Apple ecosystem is priceless.

By the word ecosystem my friend means the connectivity of information (e.g. browsing history, passwords, photos, music, documents) that is shared among his everyday personal devices — an iPhone 7 Plus, two MacBook Pros, a 5K iMac and an iPad Air.

Now, this term ecosystem is one of the most favorite words an Apple fanboy, or even a user of more-than-one Apple device(s) who knows a thing or two about technology. If I remember correctly, there was a video last year by YouTuber Louis of Unbox Therapy where he asked a bunch of tech YouTubers which phones they were using at that moment. One of these tech journalists was Dom Esposito, who uses an iPhone because he, to paraphrase, can’t live without iMessage — to which another YouTuber, UrAvgConsumer, agreed.

A lot of people who are not as tech-savvy as these people are would concur. Quite a lot of Apple users, who only own an iPhone or an iPad and no other Apple device, could not live without Apple services like iCloud or Photos. Other services like Keychain and Continuity are a blessing to people using multiple Apple devices. Apple knows this, and we know this because we see Apple executives mentioning the phrase “across all our devices” many times during their keynote presentations.


Before we discuss about why and how this idea of an ecosystem of devices is questionable, I would like to take an attempt to break down this idea, in terms of practical usage and benefit:

  1. A unified (cloud) storage shared by all the devices and with other people authorized by the user. In the case of Apple ecosystem: iCloud Drive.
  2. A messaging and video chat service that is accessible from all the devices. For Apple users: iMessage and FaceTime.
  3. A bunch of software that run (albeit different UI) on all the devices and share data among one another. Apple’s offerings in this category include quite a lot of applications: Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Safari, iWork (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) and iLife (iTunes, Photos, iMovie, GarageBand). This also includes services like KeyChain.
  4. A temporal continuity of workflow (e.g. taking a phone call from your laptop, or finishing the rest of your spreadsheet on your smartphone). Apple calls this, literally, Continuity.

Are all of these features replicable by using non-Apple devices? To answer shortly: yes, but not to the fullest. Let us see point-by-point.

Cloud storage

Many companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Box and Dropbox have been offering cloud storage services for quite a while now, with free tiers ranging from 2 GB to 15 GB of storage. Compared to Apple’s offering of 5 GB for free, these plans seem quite lucrative. You might be worried with Google and Amazon on privacy issues — and you would not be wrong. However, Microsoft has had a nice track record of preserving user privacy and you should not feel troubled about privacy breach while using their cloud service. And yes, all these cloud services are accessible from all sorts of devices and allow the users to share files with other people in different ways.

Communication

Nowadays third party messaging services are popular among people from all walks of life.

  • Facebook offers robust messaging services like Messenger and WhatsApp, which are plenty useful for casual messaging. But you may want to stay clear from Facebook’s offerings if personal privacy concerns you too much.
  • For corporate communication, I see most companies shifting to Slack and Skype for inter-company, intra-company or intra-department messaging and video conferences. These two are quite all right regarding privacy issues — especially Skype, which uses end-to-end encryption for video calls.
  • Google offers a multitude of services — Allo, Duo, Hangouts. But I wouldn't count on Google for longevity of services, as we have often seen Google throwing free services under the bus, such as Google Talk.
  • There are also some other messaging services, which have grown popular recently. These services like WeChat, Viber, Imo and Line virtually offer mobile apps only and no desktop counterparts.

Other than the last group of messaging apps, all of these services can be used from devices of all major platforms.

Similar software with synchronization

The software part is a bit trickier.

  • Web browsers like Chrome and Firefox run on all major platforms and provide excellent synchronization of history, passwords, bookmarks and extensions/add-ons among devices of different platforms. My personal choice of browser is Opera. The built-in ad-blocker and VPN services is very good, but the synchronization is not great. Vivaldi with its release of version 2.0 looks promising. Microsoft Edge is now cross-platform, but the performance on PCs (and that is only on Windows, no app for Linux) is very poor. I personally use Pocket for those times when I feel like starting to read an article on one device and picking it up on another.
  • For office works, you can either go for Google’s trio of Docs-Sheets-Slides, or go a bit more professional with a Microsoft Office 365 subscription — which offers desktop and mobile applications (with ad-free Outlook, 1 TB cloud storage in OneDrive, free monthly phone-call minutes on Skype and some other facilities). You could also opt for Apache OpenOffice or their younger sibling LibreOffice on Windows or Linux. But they do not offer mobile apps.
  • Both Microsoft (Outlook) and Google (Gmail) accounts, while managing emails, can synchronize notes (OneNote/Keep), contacts and calendar for free.
  • Password managers like Dashlane, LastPass and EnPass are quite good at saving and generating passwords and sharing them across devices. But their premium features come with a pretty high price tag.
  • Google Photos offer unlimited storage for photos up to a certain resolution in almost all major mobile platforms and PC web browsers. But that comes with the usual Google-esque privacy issues.
  • Many people use services like Spotify and Netflix for entertainment. These services also work across devices via a single user account.

In a nutshell, there are a plenty of solutions for these problems. But the reason I call this tricky is that fragmentation of these services can be an issue. You will have to make services from multiple companies work together, which is definitely easier said (or in this case, written/read) than done. On the other hand, in Apple ecosystem every one of these synchronization features are available under one umbrella and work together nicely.

Temporal continuity

Now this feature is almost completely impossible to replicate outside Apple ecosystem. But that does not mean there is no solution. I personally use Ubuntu 18.04 (MATE desktop) on my PC with my OnePlus 2 running Android 8.1 Oreo (LineageOS 15.1). For cross-device synchronization, I use KDEConnect. It lets me view my phone notifications on my PC and share files between my PC and my phone over wifi. Moreover, it even allows me to run non-administrator shell commands on my PC from my phone, and use cross-device text inputs, i.e. use my PC keyboard to write something on my phone, and vice-versa. These two features are quite genius and are absent in Apple’s iOS-macOS continuity. However, I am not aware of any such software for Windows.

As we can see, most of the features are replicable, but to cope up with the issue of fragmentation it requires basic know-how of internet services and the will to spend extra time to go through a bit of hassle.


Now the biggest question, in conclusion, can be asked two ways. For avid admirers of Apple products and services, the question is whether all these shenanigans worth the convenience. For other people like me, the question could be phrased as if the Apple tax is worth the apparently seamless experience. The correct answer to this question is subjective for obvious reasons. The idea of something being worth the price to someone can vary on both the consumer and the product. So, I would not directly say that the Apple ecosystem is not worth the Apple tax, or is worth it — and neither can you.

A lot of people who do not use or do not like Apple products used to question this worthiness of the walled garden, but nobody used to ask questions about the quality, convenience or seamlessness of this garden. That has changed in recent years. Apple not being able to decide whether to stick with their proprietary Lightning port or to move on to the open-standard but much more powerful and versatile USB-C interfaced Thunderbolt port has caused a lot of stir. This has presented an interesting conundrum: if my father, a not-so-techy person, purchases an iPhone XS and a MacBook (12") from the market today (and nothing else) and brings them home, how is he supposed to connect his new iPhone to his new MacBook? If you require a dongle to perform a simple task of connecting your new and expensive phone to your new and expensive laptop (which are, may I remind you, manufactured by the same company), this is not seamless any more. To me, this virtually disqualifies the system as a functioning ecosystem.

If you want to pay the high tax to get into the walled garden, I cannot forbid you. I would not even criticize your decision. You are free to buy any device you intend to enjoy, and then, enjoy. May be the omission of a fast charger does not bother you. May be you cannot tell the difference between 1080p and 720p anyway. And above all, may be you’re looking forward to the Apple swag that the Apple tax would bring you. And that is absolutely fine. But this freedom of choice is what I intend to support. There are many choices outside the walled garden, and do not forget that before buying into the Apple ecosystem, or buying a non-Apple product for that matter.


Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Shawon Ashraf for pointing out a minor mistake in the text.

Ahad Chowdhury

Written by

Novice coder, veteran dreamer

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