If you’ve been involved in the tech community for any length of time, you’ve probably heard people mention the Apple ecosystem quite a bit. Some use the term affectionately, while others can be quite critical. But what is the Apple ecosystem? It’s a little complex since it not only refers to all the products Apple makes, but also the relationship between each product and how they fit together into a cohesive user experience.
Through this article, I’m going to explain why the ecosystem approach is fairly unique to Apple, and what that experience looks like for users. Alright now, what exactly is the Apple ecosystem? Well, every product Apple makes represents one piece. Each piece is designed to fit perfectly with the other. Although you don’t need all the pieces to have something you enjoy, each piece you add `tends to make the entire experience even more magical.
If you’re someone who buys every piece and connects them all, it creates a beautiful experience that almost anyone can appreciate. For example, let’s say the only Apple product you use is an iPhone. It’s an incredible device that certainly stands on its own. But what if you could take a piece of that technology and put it on your wrist? Suddenly you can make calls, send texts, track workouts, check the weather, and so much more in a way that’s faster and more convenient than simply using an iPhone.
You didn’t need to put those two puzzle pieces together, but aren’t you happy that you did? That’s exactly what people mean when they say Apple ecosystem. Although years ago more people referred to it as Apple’s walled garden. Which carried a more negative connotation, since it was pretty much unique to Apple.
Before the mobile device era, there wasn’t much of a reason for tech companies to build their sales strategy around an ecosystem. Since most customers just bought computers, and maybe the occasional digital camera or MP3 player. But Apple was focused on creating an ecosystem from day one. The original Macintosh in 1984 featured a proprietary operating system that no one else was allowed to use. Prompting criticism that Apple was creating a closed system that took control away from users. Meanwhile, companies like Microsoft were licensing their Windows operating system to any hardware manufacturer that paid for it. Resulting in dominance over the computer market and sky-high revenue. But Apple stuck to their guns. Jobs insisted that Apple could only create a superior user experience if it retained control over the hardware and software.
Integrating the two as a closed ecosystem. That philosophy, which was unique at the time, is what gave Apple a huge advantage over competitors during the mobile device era. They already knew how to integrate hardware, software, and services. They’d been doing it with the Macintosh, iMac, MacBook, and iPod. The only difference was that the value it offered users would become clearer than ever before. When you own a notebook, tablet, smartphone, and smartwatch, they’d better work together seamlessly, or else managing each device could become a part-time job.
The problem was most companies weren’t focused on selling an ecosystem, they were focused on selling individual products. Dell sold notebooks, Microsoft sold tablets, and Blackberry sold smartphones. But once Apple entered the smartphone market in 2007 and the tablet market in 2010, you began to see these companies scrambling to create their ecosystems in response.
Microsoft tried creating a smartphone, along with their computers and tablets, but it failed and was discontinued. Google tried creating a tablet along with their notebooks and smartphones, but it also failed and was discontinued. LG experienced the same trouble with creating smartphones. Building an ecosystem, when a company’s focus has always been to sell as many individual products as possible with no regard to user experience, turned out to be much more difficult than people imagined. But that strength Apple has enjoyed for years, is also why some people despise the brand.
Claiming their users are forced into a closed system that takes away their power and leaves everything up to Apple’s discretion. And that effectively illustrates the downside of any ecosystem. To enjoy the seamless integration and conveniences, you have to essentially go all-in on one company. Buying their version of every product limits consumer choice when shopping for a device. To use the analogy from earlier, two pieces from two different puzzles won’t fit together very well.
Just like using an Apple smartphone with a Samsung smartwatch, won’t deliver an optimal experience. But most users who do stick with products from one company, whether it be Apple or Samsung, tend to enjoy theextra benefits of that specific ecosystem. So what are those benefits? And what does the relationship between each product look like? Well, an ecosystem tends to be organized into a hierarchy. Like this one created by Neil Cybart from Above Avalon.
Here, he clearly outlines the roles of each product category and the relationship between them. Beginning with the Mac, which handles the most intensive and resource-heavy tasks. But when users aren’t creating 3D renders or editing 4K video, the iPad becomes a much more convenient and enjoyable way to experience certain tasks. Like watching YouTube videos, replying to emails, browsing the internet, or reading e-books. But some experiences are more enjoyable on an ultra-portable device.
Like using your iPhone to take photos, listening to music on the go, responding to texts, or making calls. And finally, wearable devices deliver the highest level of convenience while completing tasks like checking the weather or tracking exercise. Each tier of product offers a more convenient method of completing a task than the one above it, although the capabilities of each device diminish slightly with each subsequent tier. But the real magic happens in the space between the products. When you create a calendar event on your Apple Watch, it automatically appears on every other Apple product you own.
When you open a new pair of AirPods, you can connect them to your iPhone with just one tap. When you want to transfer music to your HomePod, just hold your phone near the speaker, and the content transfers seamlessly. If you started writing an email on your Mac but have to head out, you can continue right where you left off on your iPhone. Do you have a large file that you want to be moved from your iPad to your Mac? Just send it with AirDrop and avoid the hassle of third-party services.
There’re even benefits between different users inside the same ecosystem. Like iMessage, which has tap back, message effects, end-to-end encryption, a typing indicator, FaceTime, and an entire App Store. Something Google has been trying to replicate on Android for years.
So that is the Apple ecosystem! The reasons why many people say it’s the best are the same reasons others give for calling it a trap. And both of those assertions would be correct. Apple knows that offering an irresistibly convenient experience across all their products will encourage users to keep buying them and never leave. But on the other hand, why would you want to? Today, Apple has the largest most enjoyable puzzle available.
And although you could try out a smaller one that has a few missing pieces, most people would think it isn’t worth the time, money, or trouble. Especially since almost every company is trying to follow in Apple’s footsteps anyway. After all, having a complete and high-functioning ecosystem is the most profitable business model in today’s mobile device era. So it’s almost a matter of picking your poison, and so far the Apple flavor tastes the best!