Competition hurts us

Competition is good for the consumer, right? That’s the idea. Unfortunately that’s increasingly not the case in the computer world, where the big companies are competing to tie us in completely to their products.

The big three of consumer computing – Google, Apple and Microsoft – want you to buy in to their ecosystems completely. Have an iPhone? You’ll be better off with a Mac and an Apple email account. Have an Android phone? You’ll get the most out of it with a gmail account.

Take email for a start. Gmail accounts don’t offer push sync on iOS with the default mail account. They used to, but Google now only offer that method – ActiveSync – with paid business accounts, presumably because they have to pay Microsoft a licence fee to use it. There is a gmail app for iOS, but it’s slower than the native client and doesn’t sync reliably. If you want proper push sync reliably with a gmail account, you need an Android phone.

Ironically, given their reputation for monopolistic practices, Microsoft provide the answer. Their email accounts offer ActiveSync, and push reliably to both iOS and Android. I suspect that’s largely because their mobile offering doesn’t have a large enough market share though – if Windows phones really took off, they’d probably move to make it harder for other devices.

Microsoft aren’t off the hook either. Where they do dominate, on the desktop, they want to tie you in to Windows and shut out Mac users. Office is a couple of versions out of date on the Mac and their OneDrive file syncing simply does not work properly on Macs. OneDrive now offers 1TB of storage to Office365 home subscribers, but it’s not a lot of use if you can’t reliably upload to it. If you want to see how it’s done properly, stick with Dropbox.

It’s the Google/Apple rivalry that’s most damaging though. Email is not the only example. Plug your Android phone into a PC and the internal storage mounts as a USB drive, making it easy to copy files. On the Mac you have to use a separate file transfer program. There’s no earthly reason for this – the Mac’s perfectly happy with any other USB storage. It can only be to make life a little harder for Android users.

By making their products incompatible, the vendors are trying to tie you in. Google still play well with Microsoft on the desktop, because Google has yet to develop a compelling desktop platform (the Chromebook is too limited – basically Android with a keyboard). Microsoft make an effort to interoperate on mobile devices, because they have to, but the quality is poor. Their apps, particularly on Android, are slow and have a habit of killing your battery life (the Outlook email app is a particularly bad offender in that regard, and is largely pointless when the default mail clients work perfectly well with Outlook addresses).

So while there is competition, it’s competition for your entire digital life. The rivalry between the vendors forces us into compromises that shouldn’t be necessary – either pick one and put up with one set of limitations, or mix and match and put up with another set of problems brought on by incompatibility.

If they all followed open standards there would be true competition, on quality of service for each individual component. Sadly I can’t see that happening.

in Random Musings

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