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November 20, 2012

Tech gift guide: Pick your gadget path carefully

Remember this as you shop for the must-have gadgets of the season: 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.

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.

"I don't think it's something that everyone considers, but it's something that they should," said Carl Howe, an analyst with Yankee Group. "Particularly with mobile devices, there can be as much investment in the content in the device as with the device itself."

In other words, over the course of a year or two people 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 this Christmas, do it with the knowledge 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.

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