Vertically challenged: The future of the single-brand-platform home

As more device manufacturers move to synergize devices and platforms, will consumers look to just a few brands for all of their electronics? The NPD Group's Ben Arnold explores.

The past year in consumer technology has seen significant innovations in product features and design. But beyond functionality, an equally important change is afoot as content on these devices increases in importance, swaying the brands consumers consider while shopping as well as the profit planning of hardware makers.

This focus on content in today's gadgets has also given rise to even more profound change as companies look to control the entire business model -- from hardware production to the revenues that inevitably come from content management and acquisition.

Two in five iPhone owners say the iPod was their first Apple device, illustrating its influence in bringing new consumers into the brand and platform.Photo by CNET

Products like Amazon's Kindle Fire, Samsung's Smart TV and Music Hub, and Microsoft's Surface are evidence of this new dynamic in consumer electronics -- one where the interests of manufacturers, software services companies, and even retailers converge to create a more seamless user experience.

The goal is providing greater synergy between device and platform, but as more manufacturers adopt this strategy, creating vertically aligned, single-brand device families, will consumers gravitate to just a few brands for all of their electronics?

Apple, of course, is the progenitor of the platform/hardware synergy strategy, and while it began with Macintosh and the Mac OS, many consumers' first experience was with the iPod.

According to The NPD Group's Apple Ecosystem Study, 82 percent of iPod owners say the device was their first Apple product, making it the gateway through which they were introduced both to the brand and the iTunes platform.

As owners moved more of their content to the device and eventually eschewed physical forms of media in favor of digital files, iTunes increased in importance to the growing installed base of owners, serving as the primary way to manage content on the device. To date, Apple has sold approximately 350 million iPods worldwide, and for owners of the device, the value of having accumulated content in iTunes makes the purchase of new iDevices like iPhone and iPad an easy proposition.

Two in five iPhone owners report that the iPod was their first Apple device, illustrating the device's influence in bringing new consumers into the brand and platform.

Ownership of multiple Apple products also creates an expectation of interoperability. According to the study, two in three owners with three or more Apple products (67 percent) say interoperability is an important factor when shopping for electronics, while just over half (56 percent) of non-Apple owners report this. Brand familiarity too weighs in as more than half (54 percent) of Apple owners say they are more likely to buy brands of devices, like Apple, they already own.

As Apple considers expanding to new types of hardware (namely television) it's reasonable to think these sentiments will only strengthen as owners acquire more content and apps specially geared for these new devices.

While the content selections of iTunes and the app stores have grown tremendously and Apple's products showcase a wide array of great features, the complete user experience occurs within Apple's environment with little to no access for outside platforms and devices. Many consumers don't notice or even care (just look at Apple's latest quarterly earnings report), but it does bring up an interesting question regarding future brand mixes in the home.

As more hardware companies develop their own proprietary platforms, households will inevitably gravitate to the few brands their content will work across.

With more companies trying to emulate Apple's platform and hardware successes, the number of branded platforms across the proverbial four screens (slates, smartphones, TVs, and PCs) is expected to grow, contributing to a degree of fragmentation in the market. Rightly, many consumers will look for interoperability and a seamless user experience in their hardware and content investments. The brand homogeny that is likely to arise in households will be a boon for a few established brands and platforms, while smaller, lesser-known companies will need to find ways to integrate their products or elevate their value to consumers.

In the end, users very simply want the products they own to work and interact how they expect them to, a chief reason Apple has been so successful.