You hear it most commonly from iPhone users: “All my gadgets are from Apple, because they are all compatible and work together so seamlessly.”
Usually, they are referring to the combination of iPhone, iPad and MacBook. Usually, they are delighted with their choice of ecosystem, as there are few brands that produce as consistently excellent products as Apple across all categories. And, because of this delight, they usually also fall completely for the marketing hype about the ecosystem.
The reality is that there is almost no difference in the ecosystem experience of an iPhone user or Android phone user who also uses a MacBook, whether an Air, Pro or plain vanilla version of the iconic notebook.
Full disclosure: I’ve been an enthusiastic MacBook Air user for at least the past six years. It is the ultimate machine for long trips, ultra-portability and instant access: it is so thin and light, has amazing battery life on the other, and goes instantly from sleep to work mode merely by opening the lid.
The significance of the battery life is that I have never been on an international flight where I have run out of power. Even on the longest single-leg flights from South Africa, which would be up to about 16 hours, I would be sleeping or have the device packed away during meal times more than half the time, meaning that I can work on the machine for the entire rest of the flight.
This is a massive benefit in countering the loss of productivity that results from international travel.
Even taking aircraft out of the equation, one often finds that local events like conferences are not planned with notebook computers in mind, and one can often go a full day without access to a power point. The MacBook Air is the only device that has allowed me to remain connected and fully productive throughout such events.
But the magic of the device does not extend to the ecosystem within which it functions. Its operating system, the Mac OS, is so ancient, it is still resting on the laurels of the 2001 launch of Mac OS X. What was described back then as a “radical departure” is now an old revolutionary pulling the wool over the eyes of acolytes with its fading activist credentials
The acolytes are caught up in a reality distortion field similar to the trance into which Steve Jobs was able to place anyone trying to argue with him about Apple products – or almost any other issue. Reality, for them, is less important than their perception of reality.
That perception is fuelled by the fact that the iPhone and iPad are indeed deeply integrated, completely symbiotic and compatible to the extent that the very same app version can sometimes be used on both. Working on one device allows seamless transition, in the same app, to the other. The experience of the iOS operating system is almost identical on the two.
Like that seamless transition, perception also makes a seamless transition across to the MacBook, which is believed by many to integrate equally tightly with the iPhone. The reality is that it’s an entirely different operating system, one that is a decade overdue for an overhaul, and one that requires work-arounds for true compatibility. Just as it does with Android devices.
Yes, Apple’s iCloud for backup and syncing is seamlessly accessible on all three categories of product. But then so is Microsoft’s OneDrive and Google Drive. Apple’s horrible Mail client can sync across all three, but then so does Google’s more evolved Gmail.
Here’s the real dirty secret of device ecosystems: the mortal enemies, Microsoft and Google, have better software ecosystems than Apple and, aside from their operating systems, are almost totally device independent.
This means that the Microsoft Office suite as well as its OneDrive cloud service, can be experienced with almost full functionality on any Apple, Android or Windows machine. Apple’s productivity suite can only be used on Apple devices – or via a Web browser, meaning it is a limited experience.
The last shot from Apple fans is usually the fact that the FaceTime and Messages video, voice and chat apps are also compatible across all three categories of device. This is one area where Android and Windows cannot compete, as the apps are not available on other platforms.
But that is equally a negative: it means that users of those apps are locked out of the rest of the device universe. Users of WhatsApp, Skype and other non-denominational chat apps, on the other hand, can find kindred souls on any mobile device.
It’s not that it’s a mistake to stick to the Apple family of products. Mostly, the experience will only be good. But the bottom line is that you don’t have to be locked into Apple to have a satisfying device family life.