The electronics industry is about to get a bit more cloudy as various device makers jump into the market for storing and delivering users' media via the Internet.
Apple Inc. (AAPL), Google Inc. (GOOG) and Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) have built massive Internet service hubs designed to carry and synchronize consumers' growing digital lives, gaining new customers in the process. But this week marked the starting point for many companies, such as Samsung Electronics Co. (SSNHY, 005930.SE) and Acer Inc. (ACEIY, 2353.TW), that are hoping to compete with the incumbents to become the center for consumers' media and content.
Whether calling it an "ecosystem" or "cloud computing," device manufacturers are trying to stake their claims in the fast-growing area of storing consumers' content and media. However, analysts said only a handful are likely to survive, largely because people won't want to spread their content over different platforms. And while several companies have strength in certain areas, such as a robust hardware offering, few offer the total package like Apple, Google and Amazon.
"Everybody wants to be Apple, but nobody can," Gartner analyst David Smith said. "Typical device companies have to figure out ways that make the most sense for them and provide value for whatever else they're trying to do."
Cloud computing, or services delivered over the Internet, is not new, but the efforts unveiled this week mark a more concerted push by device makers. Many of the announced programs allow consumers to access their files, such as music and photos, over the Internet and from any device they're using. Those services, these companies said, will appeal to consumers who are using smartphones and tablets in addition to their PCs and TVs.
"We think consumers are interested in simple ways to access and share content," said Tim Baxter, who heads Samsung's North American consumer electronics division. "We're creating user experiences relevant on the TV in the same way they are on the mobile device."
Establishing a cloud ecosystem allows the tech company to gain a bigger piece of the consumer's wallet and helps it differentiate itself from rivals. While some companies have said they plan to partner with others to complement their services, analysts expect many will try to build out a comprehensive way to purchase movies and videos while also sharing photos, videos and documents.
The theory makes sense: Building these products, rather than pushing those from Google and Amazon, gives companies more control over marketing and their relationship with consumers. And they can keep selling prices low by providing less storage on the physical device. In addition, cloud features will soon be expected by consumers, forcing everyone to develop a strategy.
But analysts expect many of these direct-compete strategies against the incumbents to fall flat, with companies challenged to create a shopping and user experience that's as polished as those from Apple or Amazon. They also warn customers are in danger of getting ecosystem fatigue, and the various cloud offerings could find it difficult to stand out from the pack.
If they do fail, it raises the question of how these companies can differentiate as Apple, Google and Amazon expand their product lineups and gain even more traction with customers.
"These companies know it's going to a world of multiple connected devices, and they don't want to get locked out of the loop," said Maribel Lopez, analyst at Lopez Research. But, she said, that doesn't mean they'll all be successful.
"I think a lot of people are going to try to fight that battle, and a lot of them are going to end up dead on the ground," Lopez said.
Along with Samsung and Acer, Lenovo Group Ltd. (LNVGY, 0992.HK) and Panasonic Corp. (PC, 6752.TO) detailed cloud plans this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Sony Corp. (SNE, 6758.TO), meanwhile, has been working on a cloud strategy for some time. It has all the pieces necessary to compete with the established players, analysts say, but has had difficulty developing a strategy that resonates with consumers.
The Japanese electronics giant this week decided to broaden its Music Unlimited streaming service to Apple mobile devices with the hope it would bring consumers to Sony products down the road, said Tim Schaaff, president of Sony Network Entertainment.
"You can be a Sony customer, but not every product you own has to be a Sony," Schaaff said, noting that offering the service on Apple products, coming later this quarter, does not limit Sony from creating exclusive advantages for users of the service on Sony hardware.
Lenovo said it also intends to rely on partnerships with other companies to round out its offerings. "I don't think any company can provide all of these things," said Yang Yuanqing, Lenovo's chief executive.
He added that companies that don't adopt his strategy of relying on partnerships will not succeed. "They think they have a unique advantage to do that but, actually, they don'," he said.
Though some offerings are likely to fail, analysts say it's still necessary for companies to have some sort of cloud strategy.
"At some point there has to be a shakeout," said Scott Steinberg, head of strategic consulting firm TechSavvy Global. "But companies still need to make an attempt. It's still a land grab at this point, and if they're able to imprint themselves permanently in the consumer's consciousness, there may be a place for them."
-By Shara Tibken and Ian Sherr, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2189; firstname.lastname@example.org
--Daisuke Wakabayashi contributed to this report.