Apple, Amazon, Google Wage Content Wars

You may not know it, but your gadgets have a hidden agenda. Think about the electronics you own. No doubt there's a digital music player such as an Apple (AAPL) iPod or a Microsoft (MSFT) Zune. Then there's a smartphone—perhaps an iPhone or a Droid that sports the Google-inspired Android operating system (GOOG). For games, your family may have an Xbox 360, Sony (SNE) PlayStation 3, or Nintendo Wii. For books, there's the Kindle from Amazon (AMZN), among others. When the iPad hits stores on Apr. 3, you'll want that, too.

Each device contains its own widening universe of services and applications, many delivered via the Internet. They are designed to keep you wedded to a particular company's ecosystem and set of products.

A battle looms, and it's not about selling new gadgets—it's about using devices to lock you into a content ecosystem. In an ironic evolution of the World Wide Web that once promised consistent access to all of the globe's information, corporate giants are now striving to wall off sections of content and charge you for access.

Apple's Issue with Adobe's Flash

The Internet is splitting into a series of content portals. The front door is your iPod. Consider some of the current gadget trends:

iPad versus Flash. When Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs unveiled his sexy tablet in January, it soon was clear that the iPad wouldn't support Adobe Systems (ADBE) Flash software. That might seem a remarkable oversight, since Flash supports most videos on the Web—until you realize that Jobs might prefer you to pay for videos at his iTunes store.

Kindle in Color. On its Lab126 career board, Amazon recently placed ads in search of engineers who have design expertise in color LCD screens and Wi-Fi. The listings suggest Amazon may be planning a color upgrade for its black-and-white Kindle, which after all, is a handheld salesman for all things

Microsoft's mobile makeover. Microsoft is also preparing to revamp its operating system. The software maker will put Office business applications, Zune music, and Xbox games on your cell phone. Because if you want tunes or tools, you really should buy them through Microsoft, right?

The list of snares is long. Roku video players link to Netflix (NFLX) movie rentals. Your home DVR box ties into your cable company's film library. Twitter has a dedicated Peek device. There are even rumors that Facebook may build its own phone. It seems that if you make money from selling content, the best defense is a gizmo offense.

make way for "the Splinternet"

Ask Google. New online pathways bode ill for Google's $23 billion search advertising business. Google search ads, you see, work best on big computer browser windows, and all those push-button apps on tiny cell phone screens bypass its search engine. In response, Google spurred the creation of its own mobile operating system, Android. Use an Android-powered device such as Motorola's (MOT) Droid and voila: Booting up Google search is a breeze.

Defusing the disruption won't be easy for everyone. In a few years, the online landscape will expand to thousands of device formats. Morgan Stanley (MS) analyst Mary Meeker thinks the world will soon contain 10 billion web-enabled gadgets. Many will act as dedicated appliances, such as General Motors' OnStar or Ford's (F) SYNC in-car connectivity systems, with unique interfaces.

Forrester Research (FORR) analyst Josh Bernoff refers to this brave new multiplatform world as "the Splinternet," where the common Web browser experience of the past 15 years is shattered into systems of incompatible content formats.

We will all have to adapt to a world where gadgets are the new marketing medium. The device-portal tie-up isn't necessarily bad for consumers, who have plenty of choices for media consumption. But it creates a thorny puzzle for businesses striving to build audiences. How do you compete when your potential customers are using devices and content systems that lock one another out?

Which tool will your customers favor?

The solution is to treat emerging technology platforms as an expanded form of communications inventory. Just as businesses today might create an ad campaign that can be customized for hundreds of different print formats, a marketing message must now fit into numerous technology interfaces. To win, you'll need to know:

Which emerging new tools will your target customers use? Create a list of devices on the horizon and ask which will be adopted by your core audience. Look for surprises. The average age of a heavy videogame user in the U.S., for instance, is now 39.

What is the desired action you seek in each format? Mobile users may rebel against ad intrusions, but they might respond well to text messages or so-called QR codes—bar codes that consumers photograph with cell phones to receive further information. Social media users may want to talk with each other more than listen to your brand brag, but giving them helpful content they can pass among themselves might spark interest.

Set aside funds for testing. If you aren't spending at least 5% of your marketing budget to experiment with new technology and content portals, you will not be positioned for the future.

Think cheap. There are numerous crowdsourcing agencies or low-cost app design firms that can help you experiment in new tech formats for a few hundred dollars. Being innovative today doesn't mean you have to blow your budget.

This approach works whether you're a marketer with an ad message, a business rethinking an e-commerce Web site, or a consumer searching for services. Rather than look at each new gadget as a silly toy, your business must start thinking about how to fit into each device's content portal. It is no longer enough to let your online behavior rest inside a PC-based Web browser. Gadgets are doing to the Web what the Web did to newspapers—building new roads to content while burning the old bridges.

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