Thorns on the garden wall

The clouds of change appear to be squatting ominously over the horizon of the mobile marketplace. For months now, persistent rumors have swirled around the possibility that Apple might soon be forced into allowing third-party app stores onto iOS. Driven by the legal pressure brought by the EU’s new Digital Markets Act.  If the rumors are true, and though they may not highlight it as such themselves, it could be the biggest news to come out of Apple this year. The lengths that Apple is willing to go to in order to protect its role as the gatekeeper of all software on its devices is longstanding and well known, with some of their related lawsuits serving as office gossip fodder for some time now. Famously, they kicked Fortnite off their platform completely and took the issue to the courts when Epic Games found a way to circumvent paying them the cut they demanded. While the ruling, in that case, left neither side with a clear-cut win and appeals are still ongoing, the trend, for now, appears to be one where Apple’s long-held policies are seeing steady erosion on multiple fronts.

Hopping the hedge

While our goal here at The Value Engineers is to keep our gaze forward facing and firmly focused out wide on the strategic picture, there are times when individual consumer stories can be just as enlightening as any focus group, especially when it’s one you’ve experienced yourself. Here I find my perspective so heavily influenced by my own experiences that it can’t help but bend the thread of my thoughts, like light curving around the immutable pull of a black hole. I’ve had some experience with walled gardens in the past, and their interaction with Apple’s systems, and I found it to be a frustrating but enlightening experience. In early 2020, I made the decision to rip the band-aid off and move on from my venerable iPhone 5s, uprooting my conditioned phone habits, re-learning my preferences, and shifting my addiction to the digital world onto a shiny new Google Pixel 4. While I don’t regret my decision, it was a long time coming and I was never truly an Apple person, to begin with, it has not been without challenges and there are things that are missed.

Any journey down a tech rabbit-hole like this begins the same: With Google and someone else looking to drive some blog traffic. One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that you shouldn’t believe the many blog posts that boil it down to an 8-point to-do list with the implication that once done everything continues just as it was under a different logo.  Life is still different on the other side, not worse, but different. I did it because I’m a PC person and, among other reasons, I chafed under the lack of control I had over the hardware I owned. I was never impressed with how iPhones interacted with all my home (PC) hardware, and a desktop operating system switch was never going to happen, the Pixel 4 seemed like a good phone and I took the plunge. It was a somewhat tedious transition, but once completed I found much to like about my new platform, though I have on occasion considered switching back.


What ‘cracks in the wall’ mean to me

As a single consumer transitioning between platforms, the thing I’ve actually missed the most from my iPhone was straightforward:  I miss iTunes. As a researcher, however, I’ve found my reasons for my acute sense of longing interesting and worth diving briefly into. To set the stage somewhat: I’m well behind the times in my music consumption habits and I like it that way; I prefer to keep my subscriptions to a minimum, buy the songs I like, create my own playlists, and mainly play them while I run. I’m neither complicated in my tastes nor my use-cases. Transferring my owned content was immediately the largest hurdle in switching platforms, but there is a path of action there, laid out by many how-to posts, and it does work. While I found Google Play Music to be an inferior but acceptable alternative, ultimately if that was the end of the story it wouldn’t be one worth mentioning in a post like this.

Apple iPhone 11 vs. Google Pixel 5

(Un)Fortunately, as has happened with some of Google’s other initiatives and ventures that didn’t live up to their internal standards, and apparently not wanting to run two competing music streaming services, in December of 2020 Google brought the axe down on Google Play Music and sent their digital refugees to YouTube Music, which is where the story gets a little more complicated. It probably wasn’t a huge deal for the majority of their userbase, streaming music is the most popular form of consumption, but for me it was a digital no-man’s land. With Apple, purchasing music licenses was always simple, with Google Play Music it was a little more complicated but possible, with YouTube music it’s subscription or bust and it has been my primary aggravation with my phone ever since. You cannot purchase music on the platform – which isn’t to say you can’t pay them for music, but subscription is the only model supported (aside from the hoop jump by numbers that got my collection onto the platform in the first place).

I think in the end those little friction points are the real downside of hopping that walled-garden hedge. The grass isn’t always greener on both sides, but neither is the greenest grass entirely on one side. I’ve forgotten quite a bit about iOS in the years I’ve been away from it, but I can’t forget those few ways in which it’s better… because I’m constantly reminded they exist when using my current phone. No, I do not want to subscribe to your service, YouTube, please stop asking me every single time I open the app, I just want to purchase, “own”, and access my digital content without recurring fees. It’s a little digital splinter I haven’t been able to remove, easily ignored but still present to remind me of its annoying existence whenever I bump into it.

It seems weird in the modern world of big tech and seamless integration to run so solidly up against a failure to deliver simple utility like this, one where some consumers would obviously be willing to pay, but it’s just… absent. Weird, but perhaps more frequent and noticeable in recent years, as these companies increasingly jockey for our digital loyalty in more noticeable and public ways. The lawsuits mentioned above have allowed us to peek somewhat into that world, but only tangentially – like enormous leviathans fighting deep in the ocean with the occasional current or tentacle breaching the surface to rock my little rowboat. As the titans clash we’re dragged in their wake. Why can’t I just buy e-books on my Kindle app? It’s complicated, but what it really boils down to is a mix of societal forces combining in sometimes unpredictable ways and forming a digital marketplace that seems simultaneously monolithic and very much in flux. Tech battles over turf in the digital landscape remind me of a famous Winston Churchill quote about Russian politics:

“Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.”


Bringing it back full circle

So, while I take great personal pleasure in watching the erosion of walled gardens, I’m not sure what it means for the future. These changes are being driven by technology and business developments: Cloud computing that can deliver HD video streams; networking infrastructure that allows the average person to access high bandwidth content, tech/content companies wanting direct relationships to customers vs going through 3rd party distributors; while traditional distributors want to control the user experience and retain their cut and we only really notice them when they impact the convenience of our seamless tech experience.

The world is always in transition, tech is no great outlier there, not when compared to the environment, or the geopolitical landscape, and the voice of the consumer is never more important … or more likely to be lost in the winds of change.

Maybe in the future I’ll one day enjoy the best of both worlds. More options for the consumer is generally better for the consumer, and while I fully expect companies to do their best to preserve their walled gardens, for now the trend seems to be towards open gates and more options and that’s a direction I’m happy to travel in. While I do, I’ll remember my little grudges and pain points and keep an ear to the ground to see what others have to say, because that’s one of the things I love most about this job: Trying to figure out what’s happening under the rug.

By: Devin O Brien

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