For Apple, It’s the Ecosystem, Stupid!

Yesterday was Apple’s big event – a keynote presentation before a friendly audience of Mac and iOS (iPhone/iPad/etc) software developers at the start of the company’s annual WWDC (Worldwide Developers’ Conference).

It streamed live – if you missed it and want to spend two hours watching all things Apple, you can see it at

If you’ve missed the hype, the company took the opportunity to announce new products: hardware like new MacBook Air ultralight laptop models and a new high-end Mac Pro desktop, new operating systems: OS X 10.9 Mavericks (for Macs) and iOS 7 (for iPhone/iPad/etc), and services: iTunes Radio, iWorks online, and more.

The new MacBook Air models are available now, featuring improved battery life and graphics performance in systems that otherwise look like the last couple of generations. Others – the Mac Pro, the online version of iWorks, and the two operating systems – are due for release sometime in the fall (though developers have access to pre-release operating system versions). iTunes Radio is currently US-only.

Overall, the new products continued Apple’s tradition of looking good and promising ease of use. I’m looking forward to trying the upcoming OS X version and the online iWorks applications. (Both of my iOS devices – original generation iPod Touch and iPad – can be upgraded to the new, or even the current, version of iOS).

But what strikes me the most is the story behind the story – how Apple’s vision is of an ecosystem where, in order to make the most of any single Apple product, customers will be led to use multiple Apple products.

There’s nothing particularly new – or particularly evil – about that. Microsoft benefited greatly from its Windows ecosystem for the dozen years between the releases of Windows 95 and Vista, for instance. One guy I know refuses to move from Windows because he doesn’t want to leave behind a bunch of data files he created with Microsoft’s Windows-only Publisher page design program.

During that period, Apple – and its users – were left on the sidelines; even though Apple fans were convinced that Windows was a pale imitation of the Mac, Mac market share hovered around the 5% mark – even after the company was rescued from its near death experience by Steve Jobs’ 1996 return.

Apple’s big success started with the November 2001 release of the iPod music player and the company’s digital hub strategy – promising that users would have the most seamless experience using music players, digital cameras, camcorders, and the like, if they were connecting them to Macs. Yes, Apple would be happy to sell iPods (at least after a couple of years) to Windows users, and yes, they released versions of iTunes and Quicktime for Windows. But the experience was never as smooth as for Mac users.

The same strategy gained power with the 2007 release of the iPhone and 2010 release of the iPad. Both can be used by Windows-users – and Apple almost certainly has more iPod, iPhone, and iPad customers connecting their devices to Windows PCs than to Macs. But they work more naturally with Macs. And Mac-users are more likely to pick up an iPhone or iPad than an Android, Windows Phone 8, or Blackberry phone or tablet.

And once you enter the Apple universe, you’re likely to stay. When it comes time to replace your phone, for instance, moving to a different platform means your investment – of both money and time – in apps may be lost. An iPhone-using friend of mine bought a high-end Samsung Galaxy Android phone; he was unable to transfer his email, contacts and calendar information and ended up returning the Galaxy and got a newer iPhone instead. Purchase add-on hardware designed to work with the iPhone/iPad proprietary connector and again you’re getting stuff that you’ll have to leave behind if you move to a competitor’s platform.

Making the Mac ecosystem more sticky was a behind the scenes theme again and again in yesterday’s keynote. Apple’s iWorks suite of office software currently has versions of its word processor, spreadsheet and presentation programs for the Mac and for iOS devices. Announced yesterday – versions of the programs that would run in a browser.

Looking smooth and sleek – at least in the keynote’s demo – this serves multiple purposes. On the one hand, it’s aimed at both Google and Microsoft, making their Google Docs and Office 365 cloud-based services look crude by comparison while providing more reason for users to make use of Apple’s iCloud services instead. Because the programs can run by Windows users in their Internet Explorer or Google Chrome browsers it offers them a taste of software that, while appealing, like iTunes will work better with more options on a Mac or iOS device.

The kicker though was the announcement that 14 car manufacturers would be offering iOS compatible systems. A $40,000 car is the ultimate ecosystem add-in; while many phone users get a new phone every couple of years, most people hang onto their car much longer. And if your car works with iPhone, when it’s time to replace your phone you’re going to really hesitate to move to an incompatible device from another manufacturer.