Perfecting the ecosystem

Ecosystems of software, services and accessories can help make mobile devices more attractive prospects, according to E&T.

In a previous article I mentioned 'ecosystem' in relation to devices. It is a term that is catching on as device manufacturers see the value of providing not just gadgets but related products and services. This article looks at this trend, how it has developed to date and how it may develop in future.

The term ecosystem can be used to describe the set of environments in which people use their devices, so a car could be viewed as part of the device's environment. Ideally, the car will seamlessly interact with the devices someone is using, bringing audio or radio components into play as necessary. The audio components could include the speakers and microphones built into the vehicle, and the radio components could include any antennas. These environments provide a context for the device that grows to be a part of its ecosystem.

A more traditional use of the term ecosystem for devices is the software and services built around a product, such as those that Apple built around the original iPod. A vital part of the initial success of this music-playing device was the launch of the iTunes software to manage the music on your computer and music player, and of the iTunes Music Store to buy it from. These three components combined in a way that other devices could not match.

iPhone app store

Apple is playing the same trick with the iPhone. The idea of adding, deleting and managing content on a device using the iTunes software has been extended with the latest release, so it now includes managing new applications software rather than just content. The App Store for iPhone is just about its most important feature, now that people have become accustomed to the innovations of the gadget - a multi-touch screen, the seamless combination of Wi-Fi and cellular data services, and an industrial-strength operating system. It is the App Store that will allow users to personalise their iPhone's capabilities; it is the App Store that will allow developers to innovate on what is essentially a new mobile computing platform; and it is the App Store that will bring those innovations to any user in an accessible way that anyone will feel able to use.

While it is true that the idea of downloading new software to add capabilities to your personal computer has been commonplace since the start of the Internet, it has been less common with consumer electronics devices. With mobile phones it has tended to be something that only a relatively small number of 'advanced' users would do. The process, as in the case of the PC, hasn't been without its problems, either.

I wish I had a pound for each of the times a friend or relative has called me for help ("as a computer person") after they have added software to their machines and then had issues with its performance. Most people have either found it too difficult or considered it too risky to do the same with the mobile phones they rely on. So it isn't the concept that is significant here: rather it is the level of comfort a device's ecosystem can provide which helps enable ordinary users to find, understand, maybe sample, download, install and manage updates for new applications on such complex and critical devices. The device's ecosystem can also reduce the risk for the user, for example by having some form of testing and accreditation scheme that controls the distribution of applications.


A third use of the term 'ecosystem' in relation to gadgets is in the provision of accessories, especially through third parties and with schemes for accreditation and approval. This identifies a growing set of additional products relating to the original product, which add to the personalisation and functional capabilities of the device. Apple has another example of this ecosystem with the iPod. They quickly introduced a 'Made for iPod' accreditation scheme, which labels items that connect electrically to the device's proprietary connector port as approved for use with the massively popular music player. In return for this level of guaranteed compatibility, and 10 per cent of the wholesale price of the accessory, Apple allows the add-on to carry the 'Made for iPod' logo. But the ecosystem that I am talking about here is much wider than just the electrical accessories. It also includes plastic cases, protective skins, and other cosmetic additions. Indeed, the ecosystem extends to anything sold as a companion to the iPod - several thousand items.

In the future, we may see even more attempts by device manufacturers to build ecosystems around their products. This could be supported by newer technologies such as virtual environments, in which the device's functionality is augmented by a rich multimedia and interactive style that enables manufacturers to extend their brand image and develop relationships with third-party application developers while presenting a unified experience to the user.


Jonathan Mitchener leads device evolution research within BT's group chief technology office.

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