Are you buying a new phone or a new lifestyle?

As Apple announces its newest iPhone, we take a look at tech ecosystems you buy into when you buy a new gadget.

Today in the world of tech: Apple, Apple, Apple, Apple, and more Apple -- as the company unveils its new iPhone. But before you get swept up in the Apple breathlessness, and rush to preorder, you might want to stop and think about exactly what you're buying into.

"When you buy a device these days, you’re not just buying a gadget," said Molly Wood, executive editor at CNET.com. "You’re buying into a whole universe of the content and the apps and the systems that run on that hardware. So you might buy an iPhone, but that means you are also buying into iTunes as a place to buy your music, rent your movies and even get your books."

What are the big ecosystems right now? Wood said, "The major ones are basically Apple and Android. Those are the primary ecosystems. You have Android apps and Apple apps, they don’t work together and they work on their separate devices. The Android ecosystem is quite a bit larger in terms of devices, but maybe not so much in terms of content. And then the third major ecosystem player is Amazon which is coming out with more and more devices backed by that huge collection of Amazon content."

Wood said these ecosystems are something worth thinking about. "It’s a pretty big deal because it’s starting to mean that your gadget purchase is becoming a lifestyle purchase. So if you buy a phone these days, or you buy an ereader, you might end up with a collection of music and books and magazine subscriptions that don’t work on any other device. As a consumer you might worry about lock-in, but you also might want to make sure that you are buying into one that is big and has enough content for you. For example, if you get into the Amazon ecosystem, you might find they don’t have enough movies for you to rent whereas iTunes might have more."

And once you're in an ecosystem, you're in.

"Companies don’t really like to put it this way, but increasingly consumers are sort of being forced to make a decision that they are going to have to live with for some time," said Peter Kafka, senior editor at All Things Digital. "It’s not irrevocable, but it’s certainly going to be a pain in the butt to change back."

He sais all this ecosystem battling can be bad for us users. "You lose if you are a consumer if you bought a Pixar movie on iTunes and now you have an Android tablet and you’d like to watch that movie on an Android tablet and you can’t figure out why you can’t do that. The reason you can’t do that is because the iTunes software that you bought to watch "Cars 2" doesn’t show up on your Android tablet. You might be rightfully indignant that you already spent $15 or $18 on a movie that you want to watch on whatever device you want to. But right now you won’t be able to do that."

Does a consumer have any recourse in that case? Has anyone tested this out in courts? Kafka said, "I’m sure someone will sue someone eventually. (Laugh) I mean if you’re savvy about this stuff you’ll know this going in, but I’m sure most people aren’t thinking about it. When you bought at DVD 10 years ago, you didn’t have to think about which player it would work on. You were reasonably assured that it would work on any DVD player and any TV you plugged it into. That’s not the case when you are buying digital media right now."

So who's winning the ecosystem fight?

"It is a heck of a battle," Sascha Segan with PCMag.com said. "If you look at the numbers, there’s no real majority share. Google has the largest share, but these numbers are fluctuating really quickly. So this is a down-and-dirty fight, everybody’s poking each others’ eyes out, and you cannot say who will win.

So how does a flashy, new device like a new Apple iPhone sort of affect these wars? What role does it play in these battles?

Segan said, "Consumers love shiny, new hardware, and a new phone, like the iPhone 5, will refocus attention on Apple, it’ll drive people into these Apple stores, and it’ll make the Apple ecosystem seem fresh. So that’ll be a real boost for Apple that it hasn’t had for a year, since the iPhone 4S came out."

Phones, he says, can be ecosystem gateway drugs.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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