Illustration of a digital ecosystem

The Value of an Integrated Ecosystem

By Boris Ralchenko

Borrowed from the natural realm, the term ecosystem has become a popular – some say overused – buzzword in the tech world, though there’s no consensus about its precise meaning. Some think of an ecosystem as a group of appliances and devices designed to work harmoniously together, creating a cohesive user experience. 

Others want the term to describe “a group of interested actors working together informally, and in doing so, creating more value than any one of them could individually.” 

My take is this: at its core, a digital ecosystem encompasses the complex web of relationships between various components within a technological environment. This includes hardware devices like smartphones, tablets, and wearables, alongside software platforms, applications, and cloud services. Moreover, it extends to encompass developers, businesses, and end-users, all interconnected in a dynamic network of interactions.

Example of Cohesive Digital Ecosystem

For an example of a cohesive ecosystem look no further than Apple. Recently, I was working on a software development project that required me to work far from my office and outside of my normal business hours. That meant I had to carry my “office” in my backpack. I’m not talking simply a laptop with basic software and an internet connection. My setup comprised two laptops with fully charged batteries designed to last for the majority of the work day, thus eliminating the need for extra chargers.

Specifically, I had a Windows machine with Linux in the virtual environment, and a MacBook Air. Also included in my setup were a variety of cables that let me access external devices via serial communication. The MacBook I used contained a terminal that allowed me to conveniently run multiple tools, such as the aforementioned serial communication utility. I also incorporated into my ecosystem an iPhone to create a hotspot to connect the various pieces of tech together. 

I call this setup the software designer’s ecosystem. It’s portable and all of the components play nicely together, making it perfect for my in-the-field needs. 

Unlike a biological ecosystem, my collection of “things that work well together” was designed and perfected by the folks at Apple from the ground up. That’s what made it such an effective system. But Apple jumped through a lot of hoops developing the individual components – and their ability to work together as a unified system. 

I don’t know the actual thought process behind the development of the MacBook Air, but I imagine it went something like this. Product manager to dev team: design a powerful laptop that can work a full day on a single charge. Developers: Ok, so that means we need a large battery. But wait. A big battery takes up extra space. Let’s use that to our advantage – more space means we can have a larger screen. Yay! Oh, but now we need an even bigger battery to support it, and that will take up even more space. Not only that, but the heavier battery and larger screen will significantly increase the laptop’s weight, making it less convenient to carry around. RIP our initial requirement to create a powerful-yet-portable system. 

There must be a solution! Let’s assume we’ve somehow overcome the battery conundrum. We just need to incorporate more processing power. No problem. We’ll simply spec a more powerful processor. Done. Oh, but that takes more energy and requires a more powerful cooling fan – which takes even more energy! And these escalating energy needs mean we’ll need to design in better air flow. What about adding vent openings in the laptop’s body?* That can work for cooling purposes – but it will also suck in dust and dirt, and make the laptop vulnerable and awkward to carry around. 

Solve one problem, create another. 

Somehow Apple’s engineers and designers successfully tackled all of these issues – and the subsequent issues their initial solutions created – to engineer a beautiful and powerful machine. I would argue that Apple’s success was founded on the strength of its ecosystem, which is more than just a bunch of connected devices and technologies. Rather, each of Apple’s hardware engineers, software engineers, visual designers, electrical engineers, material engineers, mechanical engineers, production specialists and many others who contributed to the MacBook Air were integral parts of the ecosystem, all working in sync toward a common goal.

This underscores the essence of an ecosystem — it’s not merely a conglomeration of devices, but a collaborative endeavor wherein diverse expertise converges to realize a shared vision. But what happens when the parts of an ecosystem aren’t well-designed to work well together? 

The Perils of a Disjointed Ecosystem

Here’s a hypothetical example illustrating the pitfalls of a fragmented ecosystem. A businessman and a physician team up to develop a new medical device. To bring it to life they hire a computer science student to write a rudimentary demo, which runs smoothly on a desktop. Good so far. Now, the partners want to actualize the demo into a working device. They’ve heard that Windows runs really fast so they select Windows as their platform. 

All seems fine. Except it’s not. While Windows works quickly and reliably most of the time, performance is not guaranteed. Obviously, that’s a problem in the medical device realm.

Still, they forge ahead. The medical device the partners envision has real-time requirements – and real time means that the system absolutely must respond to events within a certain interval… something they’ve just discovered they can’t ensure using Windows… so they pivot to create a device without real-time requirements. 

Back on track, right? Not so fast. Even without real-time requirements, their device needs to work flawlessly on a backup battery for a pre-set amount of time. Are they confident their chosen platform is suited to the task? Have they adequately addressed battery resilience? How can they know for sure that they’ve selected the right solution for their device? 

Unless they’ve been down this road before, they really can’t. 

They’d need to have the knowledge of a requirement specialist, platform engineer, hardware engineer and software engineer – not to mention specialized skills around visual design, communication, data storage and data safety, testing, documentation, and certification. 

In other words, in place of this disjointed approach, they need an ecosystem where all of these functions are aligned toward the common goal. 

The Imperative of a Unified Approach

An ecosystem is essentially a collection of things that work well together, for whatever purpose may be. They only work well when each component is intricately woven into the fabric of the ecosystem. In the case of a digital ecosystem, that includes professionals across diverse domains collaborating toward a singular objective. Leaning on an ecosystem that melds professional expertise and powerful development tools and processes into an integrated solution is the most effective way to ensure a project's viability.

*While current-model MacBook Air laptops use a fanless processor for cooling purposes, previous iterations of MacBook Pro had a vent opening at the side of the body where the screen lid is connected. The vents would open only when the laptop was open so it was safe to carry in a backpack. 

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