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CNET's Next Big Thing of 2012: The ecosystem. Should we fear it?

At CNET's annual Next Big Thing Supersession at CES, we'll talk "ecosystem" with Google, Samsung, and others. But should you be worried about a world where every device brings a lifestyle, too?

Every device, with everything on it. Samsung's Smart Hub interface for Internet-connected TVs and Blu-ray players. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

When is a phone just a phone? A TV just a TV? A Blu-ray player just a Blu-ray player? How about last year? Because in 2012 and beyond, the next wave of consumer electronics evolution is all about the "ecosystem."

That concept, in fact, is the topic of CNET's Next Big Thing Supersession at CES 2012. We'll be talking about this idea of the ecosystem, and how it's changing the landscape of consumer electronics--and turning media and service companies into hardware partners, if not actual hardware makers.

Google's Eric Schmidt Google

We'll talk one on one with Google's Eric Schmidt and Samsung America's consumer electronics and enterprise business president, Tim Baxter, plus Sling Media co-founder and Amazon board member Blake Krikorian, and venture capitalist Bill Gurley. What we want to know about this burgeoning trend is where it's going, how to succeed at building a tech ecosystem, and what it means for anyone who wants to start a new tech business in a vertically driven world.

More importantly, though, I want to know what it means for me, and for you, the consumer. Because I fear the growing ecosystem trend could turn out to be a Trojan horse that leaves us locked up behind high-tech walls with no way to escape.

Let's back up a bit, though. Ecosystem is probably a word you've been hearing a lot more often in the tech world lately. In a way, it's a dream: it's the term that refers to a perfectly integrated gadget experience, one that combines the device and its OS with deeply integrated content (streaming movies and TV, music, books, and magazines) and services (media stores, cloud storage, app stores).

A perfectly constructed ecosystem turns a smartphone, a tablet, or even a TV into a symphony of interoperable, always-on, one-stop-shopping gadget glory. No device is just a device, anymore. Now, every device is a platform, and everything works together perfectly (in theory, anyway).

iPhone: The ecosystem holy grail?
The ecosystem holy grail?

The "ecosystem" concept started bubbling up last year at CES. Back then, companies like Samsung and Vizio were talking about creating tablets that talked to their TVs and app stores that could integrate their mobile devices into the entire living room full of devices. Apple is the model, of course, having already closed the loop on what Steve Jobs originally dubbed the "digital hub" back in 2001.

As the year went on and every gadget maker started scrambling for content deals, it became clear that creating an ecosystem around devices means more than just devices sharing content--although that's a huge part of it. It also means, potentially, developing all the services and apps and cloud-based sharing, maybe even the operating system, in concert with hardware. And above all, the ecosystem relies on a single, essential piece: control.

It's a sea change for the consumer electronics world, in some ways. Granted, hardware has always been nothing without software, and vice versa. The difference with the ecosystem concept is that every company wants, like Apple, to control the means of distribution, own the services that run on individual platforms, sell the content, and be the door to consumption of the content it doesn't sell. That's a tall order.

So far, a lot of roads lead to the ecosystem. Google, in some ways, is most like Apple, and its biggest threat. Google has created an app marketplace, delivers its own digital music, books, and video stores, and integrates its own services from calendar to mail to search into an operating system that works best if you already live in Google-land (that's not even getting to the idea of Chrome OS!). The entire experience crosses devices from phone to tablet to computer to TV (although in very small doses). But Google doesn't make its own hardware--yet.

Amazon, on the other hand, is a media giant that's crossing over into a hardware maker. Amazon also has a portable and universal platform in its Kindle reader and shopping apps. But now it's taking the vertical experience of Amazon shopping--for movies, TV, books, music, and, well, anything--and integrating it deeply into its own hardware, the Kindle Fire. Amazon's experience is built on a highly customized version of Android at the moment, but you can imagine they're not too far from an OS. After all, they've built a browser, which is all Google required, really, to start creating Chrome OS.

Then there are the traditionally pure hardware makers. What does Samsung do in a world dominated by services? Sony, Panasonic, LG? Most of them have tried to take steps toward some kind of ecosystem model, mainly in the form of connected devices that deliver many services along with hardware (Netflix, Pandora, and Hulu streaming built into connected TVs, for example).

Samsung has been the most aggressive, not only with its wide range of products (phones and tablets in addition to its traditional home theater and even appliance lineup), but with its attempts to develop in-house app stores and even a smart phone platform called bada.

Why does creating an ecosystem matter so much to these companies? It's not entirely about selling you music or movies or apps (although that's a huge perk!), and it's certainly not just about making things easier for you, dear consumer, to send your photos to a social network or transfer music into jukebox software. It's about lock-in. That's why these companies are so serious about it, and that's why, despite all that ease of use, you should be worried.

Apple may be suing Samsung over design patents, but what it's really concerned about with Android competition is the loss of ecosystem customers--the company said as much at a patent-battle court hearing in Sydney, Australia. If customers buy beautiful, iPad-like Samsung Galaxy Tabs in droves, argued Apple, "[T]hey'll then be Android people and the investment in the apps that they make to purchase on their Galaxy Tab will be something they can't use on an Apple product."

Notwithstanding how scary "Android people" sounds, Apple is right--and that's scary all on its own. A lot of these custom platforms carry the threat of lock-in. Fans of Buzz Out Loud have heard me rail early and often against the idea of device-specific content--when Rupert Murdoch rolled out The Daily, a newspaper only for iPad, I imagined a world of Balkanized content locked up tight on specific gadgets. We're not there yet, but we're getting closer, and every new app store gets us closer to the edge.

Android apps can't run on Apple products, just as Apple apps can't run on Android. No Apple app can run on a Kindle Fire, and not every Android app can run on the Fire. Samsung Apps can only run on Samsung phones and TVs. The growing collection of Windows Phone apps are locked up tight on Windows phones. It's a nightmare for developers, and worse, it means that instead of buying a new phone or tablet, we're suddenly buying an entire lifestyle that's harder than ever to change.

Apple has always demonstrated that, sometimes, ease of use comes with a price: proprietary standards and a lifetime of loyalty. In some cases, its hardware and services may be worth the trade-offs. But do we really want a tech landscape where every gadget choice carries such content consequences? Is the ecosystem trend actually more like a trap?

Please add your thoughts in the comments below, and as we get closer to the Next Big Thing panel, add your questions for our panelists. And tune in to CNET Live for a live stream of the panel on Tuesday, January 10, at 3 p.m. PT. More details on the panel and panelists are here.