Are We Building Mobile Ecosystems Or Economies?

Every industry produces its fair share of terminology. Tech companies are especially prodigious suppliers of new business vocabulary. Sometimes, our vernacular achieves escape velocity, going beyond the realm of its native space and spreading to other businesses and sectors.

I can’t think of a more obvious example of this than the word “ecosystem.”

What began as a science term has became a useful way of visualizing what many of us in mobile have strived to achieve since the phone began to do more than just place calls and texts. As in biology, a mobile ecosystem describes an often complex relationship between many different participants, each of which provides something of value and seeks to extract something of value in return. In the mobile world, those participants include device manufacturers, operators, component suppliers, retailers, developers, consumers, media, and analysts.

Nowadays, you’re likely to hear the word used in any number of different settings. Here’s a recent story on content marketing ecosystems, a link mentioning the San Francisco culinary ecosystem, and, my favorite, a paper on baseball ecosystems.

The analogy loses some of its oomph, though, when we consider the outcomes successful ecological and mobile ecosystems strive to achieve. In our science classes, we measure healthy ecosystems by their ability to achieve balance and sustainability. In the business world, “balance and sustainability” might serve as a desirable, albeit bland end state for a single company, but I don’t think that’s why most of us go to work.

Instead, we strive to leverage our place in the ecosystem to achieve growth. A thriving mobile ecosystem should look like a productive economy, an open, competitive marketplace that unites buyers and sellers in transactional relationships. In the scientific sense, ecosystems do feature competition for scarce resources, with winners and losers, but that dynamic has been diluted as the term has gained more mainstream prominence. The result, at least for me for me, is that “ecosystem” conjures images of a tranquil aquarium.

That’s why after seven years in mobile in which I’ve used this word as often as anyone and even have given speeches in which I’ve encouraged others to do the same, I’m consciously avoiding the word “ecosystem” in favor of “economy.” I am reminding myself and, I hope, others that in the universe of mobile, developers strive to build successful businesses. While that helps operating systems, developer tools, services, ad networks, brands, agencies, devices and operators, succeed, too, (go, ecosystem!) it’s about beating your competition.

My new preference appears to place me in the minority for now. A search on Bing for “Apple ecosystem” over the last month produces 349,000 results, while “Apple economy” yields just 41,100. Still, I expect this to evolve as app developer priorities shift from achieving technological innovation to generating successful business outcomes.

Remember why you got into (or are considering getting into) the mobile business. It probably had something to do with aspiring to build something amazing and attract users to that amazing thing so you can achieve your objectives. Simply creating brilliance and publishing it isn’t enough. Attracting and engaging an audience, earning enough of their trust and enthusiasm so that they’ll give you something valuable in return so you can capture a competitive edge, is every bit as important.

In other words, it’s about claiming your share of the mobile economy.

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