How Apple took the high ground in the battle for the global digital living room

October 1, 2010, 9:42 AM UTC

Google and Microsoft are gaining, says an analyst. Sony, Amazon, Samsung are dark horses

Source: UBS Investment Research

Apple’s (AAPL) tightly integrated software and content ecosystem is the template by which a UBS team led by Maynard Um judged the key players in the battle they see “brewing among the mega caps to own the consumer” in what they call the global digital living room.

“We believe the ‘holy grail’ for these vendors,” they write in a 48-page report issued Friday, “is to provide users with seamless access (eventually through the Internet or so-called ‘cloud’) to all types of content across all types of devices (anything with a screen) anywhere and at all times. It is what we dub the Global Digital Living Room. Unlike in past years, technology and ecosystems are now enabling this to be a reality. While the race is still in the early stages, we believe Apple, Google, and Microsoft are the early leaders in the group — each with strengths and weaknesses in different areas — and a number of ‘dark horses’ including Sony, Amazon, and Samsung. However, the early leaders are the ones that have ‘glued’ or are in the process of ‘gluing’ the content together with the hardware through end to end ecosystems.

We believe the barriers to entry for standalone new entrants are rising and see a number of more vertically focused companies that make their own operating systems such as Research In Motion, Nokia, and Hewlett Packard (via the Palm acquisition) as currently more challenged to compete either given their lack of media-generated content, limited strategy across multiple devices, or, perhaps most importantly, the need to invest heavily to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ – namely Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

The report goes on to analyze each of the players’ current position using the diagram above as its starting point. Only Apple’s is mostly green (for “strong”). Google’s (GOOG) and Microsoft’s (MSFT) have large areas of yellow (needs improvement). Amazon’s (AMZN) is mostly red (no solution).

Below: The report’s summary of how Apple took the high ground.

With content, in our view, currently being the key pillar, we believe Apple has generated an early ecosystem lead, having pioneered the a la carte music purchase model via iTunes. Apple has leveraged that content to create its ecosystem (i.e., iTunes as a central content repository) that allowed seamless transfer of music to multiple devices — first iPod and then to iPhone. The introduction of the App Store then built upon the early successes and installed base, which we believe has also been a key driver to the iPad’s success.

With more than 160 million iTunes accounts, Apple has built a strong user base that we believe, in part, is captive because of the investments users have put into the ecosystems from a time and dollar perspective as well as familiarity and ease of use. We believe Apple is the benchmark by which others will be judged. Although we believe much of the music within iTunes libraries are likely “ripped” by users, we believe there have been increasing music purchases, some of which may be DRM’d. These purchases that are not transferrable to other media devices could make switching costs higher. The same principle applies to applications. Apple has gained a head start with the rapid success of its App store. While many of the apps users download are free or relatively inexpensive, they still represent an investment into the Apple ecosystem as these applications only work on iOS devices and searching for and downloading the same apps on other platforms could be time consuming.

With iTunes, Apple has created a hub that users use to store, transfer, sync and manage all of their content across multiple devices. The ability for a user to purchase one song and then be able to play that song on their PC’s, tablet, smartphone, TV, and music player is a very attractive value proposition for iTunes users. While other competitors (such as Google and Microsoft) are not far behind, in our opinion, no other company currently offers as much content that is as seamlessly integrated on such attractive platforms as Apple does.

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]