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    Hayley Tsukayama

    Is that gadget a must-have? Or will it just lock you in?

    Remember this as you shop for must-have gadgets: You’re buying far more than a box of circuit boards when you pick up a smartphone or tablet. You’re setting path through the digital world, and turning back could be painful.

    Companies are stepping up the range of content they offer exclusively to customers as a way to stand out. Apple offers a bevy of quality apps and music through its iTunes Store. Amazon touts access to its enormous online marketplace. Google offers seamless integration of mail and documents. But what people often don’t realize is that each 99 cent app or $2 song sinks them deeper into a lasting relationship with a company.

    “I don’t think it’s something that everyone considers, but it’s something that they should,’’ said Carl Howe, a Yankee Group analyst. ‘‘Particularly with mobile devices, there can be as much investment in the content . . . as with the device itself.’’ In other words, in a year or two people can spend hundreds of dollars on songs, movies, apps, and books they can’t transfer to another smartphone or tablet.


    If you pick an iPhone, a lot could get stuck there if you switch down the line. Angry Birds bought on your Kindle­ Fire will never show up on your iPhone — you’ll have to buy it twice.

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    This lock-in is becoming more pronounced as companies introduce families of devices that share app stores and information. Apple, Google, and Microsoft all point to this cloud storage capability as a major selling point.

    On the one hand, that’s great for consumers, who may want to be able to note something on their smartphone during a commute and have it show up later on a home computer. But it creates a stronger ‘‘halo effect’’ — the term analysts use for the buyers’ habit of sticking with a single company’s gizmos because it’s convenient.

    Shoppers with iPhones looking for tablets naturally gravitate toward the iPad, for example; they know their movie, music, and book collections will appear on both devices instantly. According to Yankee Group, 78 percent of iPhone owners have iPads; only 21 percent have Android tablets.

    Another Yankee Group survey showed that current device ownership is a strong predictor of future buying. For example, 91 percent of iPhone owners would buy another iPhone.


    There are a couple of ways to avoid lock-in. Companies are starting to release apps into each others’ stores to make lock-in a bit less drastic. You can get Kindle books on your iPad or SkyDrive documents on Android tablets. But those apps don’t come with all the perks of going all-in with a certain company. Kindle apps, for example, don’t get access to Amazon’s lending library of free books.

    It boils down to this: To avoid being stuck with a platform down the road, think carefully about a device before buying. Think about how you’ll actually use a device. Do you want something for light e-mail, or to replace your laptop? Do you want a phone with a big screen, or one with strong apps? Make those decisions first.

    ‘‘So many people get wrapped up in trying to optimize a purchase,’’ Howe said. ‘‘My best piece of advice is to try things out and buy things you like.”

    Hayley Tsukayama writes for
    The Washington Post.