Remember this as you shop for gadgets: You're buying far more than a box of circuit boards when you pick up a smartphone or tablet. You're picking a set path through the digital world — and turning back could be painful and expensive.
As the tablet and smartphone markets grow more competitive, companies are stepping up the range of content they offer exclusively to customers as a way to stand out in the marketplace. Apple offers a bevy of quality apps and music through its iTunes Store. Amazon touts access to its enormous online marketplace. Google offers seamless integration with its mail and documents system. But what people often don't realize is that each 99-cent app or $2 song sinks them deeper into a lasting relationship with the company that sells stuff to run on their gadgets.
Over time, gadget owners can spend hundreds of dollars on songs, movies, apps and books that they often can't transfer to another brand of smartphone or tablet.
If you pick an iPhone, know that a lot could get stuck there if you switch to a different smartphone down the line. Even apps made by the same companies won't transfer between devices. Buying Angry Birds on your Kindle Fire will never make it show up on your iPhone — you'll have to buy it twice.
This lock-in is becoming even more pronounced as companies introduce families of devices that share app stores and information. Apple, Google and Microsoft all point to this cloud storage capability as a major selling point as they hawk their lines of smartphones, tablets and, at least for Apple and Microsoft, computers.
On one hand, that's great for consumers, who may want to be able to note something on their smartphone during a commute and have it show up later on their desktop at home. But it also pushes buyers into sticking with a single company's gizmos.
To avoid being stuck with a platform down the road, it's best to think carefully about a device before buying. But before you rush off to create a spreadsheet comparing processor speeds and screen resolution, take a moment to think about how you'll actually use a device. Do you want something for light email or to replace your laptop? Do you want a phone with a big screen or one with strong apps? Make those decisions first and let them guide your purchases.