published Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Like any relationship, being locked into one digital system has its ups and downs

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LOYALTY LEADERS

According to the 2014 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index made by New York-based brand researcher Brand Keys, the following technology companies in 2013 best met consumer’s expectations for their devices:

Laptops: Apple (95 percent)

E-readers: Amazon Kindle (96 percent)

Flat screen TV: Samsung (98 percent)

Headphones: Beats by Dr. Dre/Sony (91 percent)

Online music: Pandora (90 percent)

Online video streaming: Netflix/Amazon (88 percent, tie)

Smartphones: Apple (81 percent)

Tablets: Amazon/Apple (90 percent, tie)

In technology, as in relationships, there’s something to be said for settling down.

After years of playing the field, content to have a device in every port, some consumers happen upon a company whose product line wins them over, heart and wallet. And once they’ve found that special brand, they don’t stray. Not because they can’t, but because they don’t want to.

Call it technogamy.

“I’m in Apple’s camp, but I never felt locked in because, frankly, I like my ‘iDevices,’” says Eric Barger, the vice president of C. R. Barger & Sons, Inc., a Knoxville, Tenn.-based concrete manufacturer where everything from the security cameras to the video conferencing is powered by Apple products.

“I don’t think there’s something Apple has made that we haven’t bought,” he laughs.

Over the years, Barger estimates he has invested more than $100,000 in the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech giant’s devices, from iMac desktops and MacBook Air ultra-portable laptops to “every iPhone that’s ever been produced.”

But he says his support for Apple is not a matter of being a hostage who’s fallen victim to a kind of technological Stockholm syndrome. If he’s committed, he says, it’s more like voluntarily chaining himself to a tree than being stuck in a tar pit.

“I like the Apple side of the fence,” Barger, 37, says. “Everything just works. We don’t have major issues. You’re going to be locked in one way or another. We chose Apple, and we don’t regret it. We’re all in.”

Much like staunch supporters of companies such as the Ford Motor Co. or Coca-Cola, technology giants such as Apple, Google, Samsung and Amazon increasingly have earned consumers’ trust and loyalty. In the 2012 edition of its top 100 “loyalty leaders” list, New York-based brand researcher Brand Keys found that customers are starting to feel more support for and “emotional engagement” with technology brands.

Devices and digital service providers made a clean sweep of the top 10 spots on Brand Keys’ list for products with the most-loyal user base. Three of the highest-ranked products were tablets, a device category that wasn’t even tracked in 2011, and products by Apple, Amazon and Samsung occupied seven of the top spots.

ACCESS DENIED

Still, technology brand loyalty is often no longer just a question of a device’s capabilities on its own but how it will interact with other products.

For years, the trend in consumer technology increasingly has shifted toward “smart” devices that unlock new functionality when used in conjunction with other devices, especially those made by the same company.

An iPad can stream images and video to a TV, but only if it is connected to an Apple TV set-top media streaming device. The Sony Playstation Vita handheld game system can pair with a Playstation 4, also made by Sony, offering remote access to content stored on the console. Owners of a Samsung Galaxy Note III smartphone can control some of its functions and access its content via the company’s line of Gear smart-watches.

Not everyone is head over heels for the interconnectedness and exclusivity that has come to define modern consumer technology.

Many digital content providers such as iTunes, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Xbox Live and Playstation Network allow users to purchase movies, games and TV shows but restrict access to that content to compatible devices. Films purchased on an iTunes account, for instance, will be playable on an Apple TV but not on a competing media player such as the D-Link Boxee Box or Roku 3.

Some users say this restriction makes them hesitant to stray into another company’s arms out of fears that they could lose access to their content or have to repurchase it on a different service.

“I would be more likely to switch platforms if software wasn’t locked to one company,” says Chattanooga-based paralegal Steve McKnelly, 44, who has hundreds of dollars invested in Sony gaming products, Android phones and apps.

But other techies say the symbiotic relationship between devices is a driving force behind why they spend their money in one company’s ecosystem.

“That’s just a perk to having all the same components,” says Bo Bandy, 47, of Resaca, Ga. “From my own experience, it’s a big deal for me to have compatible equipment because I have so many devices.”

While products from different brands generally work together on a basic level, Bandy says consumers can’t reasonably expect parts made by different companies to function as seamlessly as a system comprised of uniform components. Just as in any other market, he says, technology manufacturers have a vested interest in offering exclusive content and interconnected features to attract consumers and keep them in-house.

“People who buy a six-pack of Pepsi and want it to taste like Coke … it’s just not going to happen,” he says. “You can’t force two companies to be compatible with each other, especially when they have different views on how technology will develop.”

DIEHARD LOYALTY

Once they’ve found a company to commit to, though, tech consumers’ loyalty can be diehard, especially among Apple devotees.

A survey released last summer by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners found that 81 percent of iPhone users who upgraded devices between July 2012 and June 2013 bought another iPhone. During the same period, 68 percent of those using Android devices stuck with a phone powered by Google’s operating system.

Carl Howe, an analyst with researcher Yankee Group, attributed Apple’s industry-leading customer loyalty to the almost gravitational pull of Apple’s product line. Before they know it, Howe says, their iPhone is synced up to an iPad and AirPlay-compatible speakers and there’s an Apple sticker in their car’s rear window.

“Apple’s ‘black hole’ ecosystem captures subscribers who never leave, while Android smartphones are losing one out of every six customers to other manufacturers,” Howe wrote in a 2013 Yankee Group study on smartphone ownership.

Pat Hagan, 63, says he fell for Apple years ago and has been a stalwart supporter ever since.

A patient care technician at Memorial Hospital, Hagan bought an Android as his first smartphone, but the device — “a Droid something” — was difficult to use, so he upgraded to an iPhone 4, which he says felt more intuitive.

From there, things snowballed, and he’s now spent about $1,300 on an iPad, an iPad mini, two iPhones and an Apple TV. It’s an expensive relationship, he admits, but he doesn’t mind throwing a little money at the company he loves.

“[Apple] keep making better stuff, so you want to get the next one,” he says. “They kind of hook you into it.”

GAME WARS

In the last seven years, while the smartphone market has come to be defined by the two-company race between Apple’s iPhone and devices powered by Google’s Android operating system, the video game industry has long been engaged in a “console war” between three major hardware manufacturers: Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.

As major investments, especially early in their hardware cycle, gamers tend to throw their support behind just one console, lured not only by the new hardware’s capabilities but also their past relationship with the manufacturer. For the latest generation of consoles, the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, gamers’ support for Sony has proved to be the most unflinching.

In December, online coupon marketplace BluePromoCodes.com conducted a poll of 155 owners of the Playstation 3 and its primary competitor, Microsoft’s Xbox 360, about their next-generation purchasing plans. More than 90 percent of Playstation gamers said they planned to stick with Sony and purchase a Playstation 4. Xbox 360 owners, however, were about evenly split about which company they would support next.

Unlike the Xbox One, which currently lacks backwards compatibility with titles released on Microsoft’s older systems, the Playstation 4 allows gamers to play Playstation and Playstation 2 games purchased digitally through the online Playstation Store. This summer, the company is expected to roll out a cloud-based game-streaming service called Playstation Now that will extend access to select Playstation 3 titles as well.

McKnelly says Sony’s continued support for the games in his back catalog will be a deciding factor in which console he purchases.

“I’m going to hang onto the Playstation 3, and I’ll eventually buy a Playstation 4,” he says. “Sony has been willing to support the Playstation, [Playstation] 2 and [Playstation] 3 long beyond their useful time. I’d have to say that, unless Microsoft had a serious change of heart, I’m in Sony’s camp.”

THE DEVIL YOU KNOW

Some users say their loyalty to a brand is more a matter of ease of use and familiarity than access to new features.

According to a mobile phone customer satisfaction poll of 2,000 iPhone users by British company SimOnlyContracts, about one-third said they stuck with Apple when they upgraded due to their familiarity with iOS, the phone’s operating system.

The poll also gauged iPhone users’ degree of satisfaction with their device. Seventy-eight percent said they “couldn’t imagine having a different type of phone,” and 59 percent said they “wouldn’t consider” a non-Apple device when upgrading.

That unquestioning support has led some to describe Apple supporters, unflatteringly, as blindly loyal or fanatical.

Others suggest this degree of support reflects customers’ inherent comfort with Apple, which has been notoriously conservative in alteration to its operating system and its devices’ physical design since the original iPhone’s debut in 2007.

Google’s approach to Android has been far more open-handed, says Jeff Guild, a Chattanooga lawyer and former iPhone user who converted to an Android device several years ago.

“[The Android operating system] is more flexible, in terms of what you can do and what you can make the phone do than the iPhone,” he says. “Apple’s design is an integrated, total operating system that’s designed to ebb and flow the way that Apple wants it to.

“They don’t want any strangers coming in and tipping over the apple cart.”

In addition to offering more customization on the software side, Android also is used by a range of devices with different hardware configurations and sizes.

For Apple users, the choices are limited to just three models: the three-year-old iPhone 4S, the “lower end” iPhone 5C and the company’s flagship, the iPhone 5S. By comparison, some estimates of distinct devices that use Android number in the thousands.

The smorgasbord of specifications available to Android users was another draw for Guild, who says his large hands felt cramped and less efficient on the iPhone’s 4-inch screen. The 5.7-inch screen of the Galaxy Note II, he says, offers him a more comfortable user experience.

Although he personally prefers the Android’s flirtatious eccentricities, Guild says he can see how Apple’s consistency could appeal to those whose dream technological companion is more stalwart and dependable.

“People like Apple because they don’t have to think about it,” he says. “The folks I know who like Apple devices like them because they know [the operating system]. It’s simple; it’s going to be reliable.

“Android users may be more adventurous.”

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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