Don't fence me in
Locking yourself within a walled garden is the hidden cost you pay for some gadgets, but you can live a cross-platform life.
Whenever you buy a new Apple, Microsoft or Google gadget, it's easy to go with the flow and embrace their entire ecosystem. They'll happily handle your entire digital life from email, contacts and calendars to photos, music, videos, documents and back-ups. Generally it all ''just works'' and they take care of everything behind the scenes.
In the short term, such an approach can make your life easier, but putting all your eggs in one basket can cause problems. For starters, you're more vulnerable to service outages and hacking attacks that could wipe your entire digital life in a heartbeat. But platform lock-in also makes life harder if you want to change allegiances in the future, or you simply want to run a blended household with a mix of gadgets.
Apple's ecosystem is the most frustrating when it comes to locking you in. Apple's eBooks can only be read on iGadgets, while calendars created in Apple's iCloud can't be shared with non-Apple users. Apple's iCloud back-up only stores iWork office files, while iWork files can only be edited on Apple products. Apple also has a tendency to drop support for old devices and operating systems, forcing you to upgrade. Once you're sucked into the Apple ecosystem, it's hard to break away.
If you're looking to live a cross-platform lifestyle, you might consider switching from Internet Explorer or Safari and installing Firefox or Chrome browsers on your computer. Both are available for Windows, Mac and Linux, with the ability to automatically sync your bookmarks, history and other settings between various computers. Sit down at any of them and you'll feel at home. You'll also find both Chrome and Firefox browsers for Apple's iGadgets and Android devices.
Whichever gadgets you own, make sure you use IMAP or Exchange rather than POP3 when checking your email, as they keep your inbox in sync across multiple devices. Unfortunately, Google is turning away from Microsoft's Exchange protocol.
If you want to use the same email software across multiple desktop computers then consider the free, cross-platform Thunderbird email client - checking your email using IMAP. You'll find plenty of other free cross-platform software such as LibreOffice for office documents, VLC for playing audio-visual content, GIMP for photo editing, Audacity for working with audio, Skype for voice/video chat and Filezilla for FTP file transfers.
Google's cloud-based calendar and contact options are some of the most flexible when it comes to syncing them across devices. It's also easy to share your Google calendars with friends, regardless of their devices. Apple's iCloud upgrade forced some iGadget owners to switch to Google's cloud services just so they could continue sharing calendars with non-Apple users. Unfortunately Microsoft has dropped support for Google calendars in the Windows 8 Calendar app.
As for syncing data between devices and backing up files to the cloud, Google Drive, Microsoft's SkyDrive and Dropbox are choices to consider. You'll also find a wide range of desktop, mobile and cloud apps that can read and edit office files as well as sync them between devices. If you want to keep your office files in the cloud then Google Drive and Zoho are useful, but Microsoft's Office Web Apps (built into SkyDrive) reduce the need to convert files between formats.
When it comes to content, eBooks bought from Amazon or Kobo can be read on a wide range of gadgets. Streaming music and video services Rdio, Spotify and Quickflix are also cross-platform. If you want to avoid Apple's iTunes you'll find alternatives such as Songbird, Clementine and Amarok. Android applications such as DoubleTwist can sync music with iTunes running on your computer, while Airfoil lets you use Apple's streaming music format on a wide range of devices.