Why Amazon is More Impressive Than Apple These Days

Mark Lowenstein / February 19th, 2016

Over the past year, Amazon’s stock has risen by about 50%, while Apple’s has fallen by 24%. This is a sign that some of Amazon’s longer term investments are starting to pay off, while Apple is struggling a bit to create the new categories for growth a company its size needs in order to maintain what had been an incredibly long and consistent winning streak. Apple and Amazon are both impressive companies, doing impressive things, delivering great products and services and, for the most part, delighting their customers. But I think amidst all the hoopla and near-halo effect surrounding Apple, it makes sense to step back and consider what Amazon is accomplishing.

I’ll admit that, on a personal level, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Amazon. I’m dismayed at the effect Amazon has had on brick and mortar stores, and the physical shopping experience in general, in the same way that WalMart, while impressive in its own right, has taken a serious whack out of Main Street. But as a customer, industry observer, and consultant, I am awed at how many good bets Amazon has made and at its consistently high level of execution. Let’s look at some areas:

Amazon Prime. Yes, the b-school case studies have already been written about Prime. And about how it might have been a loss leader in its first couple of years. Free two day shipping might be the gateway drug, but Prime cements the customer relationship in the fiercely competitive world of digital commerce. Just when you think Prime might not be ‘worth it’ because you didn’t buy a lot of stuff last year or use Amazon’s streaming music service, Amazon throws another goodie into the Prime pot, nearly guaranteeing that auto-renewal for numerous products and services. iTunes was once that baby. Now, it’s Prime.

Amazon Web Services. In an already crowded world of cloud and web services, Amazon was brilliant in spotting a vacuum for small and medium-sized businesses who felt ignored by the Silicon Valley heavyweights and wanted to grow modularly. AWS is the IT on-ramp for companies in the way that, in its heyday, AOL was the onramp for consumer internet and Apple was for smartphones.

But it’s fascinating to see how Amazon is continuing to shape and evolve AWS, adding services and capabilities in a way that almost anticipates the needs of its customers (i.e. big data, analytics, IoT) and expand the unit’s scope. For example, five days ago, Amazon acquired Italy-based NICE, a SaaS vendor of software and services for high-performance and technical computing. On Tuesday, Amazon launched Lumberyard, a new 3D game engine that enables developers to build and operate cloud-based games with the help of AWS.

Market Segmentation. This is an area where Amazon’s strengths are under-recognized. For example, with AWS, Amazon smartly focused on the needs of small and medium-sized business. Kindle is another great example. Rather than try to replicate the iPad as others in the Android sphere have done, Amazon has developed numerous versions of the Kindle that address a particular (and I would argue under-served) segment of the market: the Paperwhite for readers and a few SKUs of the Fire oriented toward content/media consumption.

The Kindle Fire for Kids shows how Amazon thinks through the needs of a particular segment – in this case, both the kids and the parents. For example, there’s an attractive subscription pricing option, a bevy of curated content appropriate for kids and focused on reading and education (addressing a segment of parents who are concerned about this issue), a solid parental controls capability, and a no questions asked two-year replacement policy. I doubt Amazon is making much of a profit on the device itself or even the content but I’m confident they’re monetizing this in indirect ways and over the long haul.

Television. For all the ink spilled about Apple TV and the fawning over its grand plans to reinvent the model, Amazon TV outflanks Apple TV in just about every respect. Ultra HD, a better bundle of channels and OTT content for those who want to cut the cord, integration with Alexa, who in my mind, is better than Siri, and a good package of content for Prime subscribers. Plus, they have invested heavily in original content, with more hits than misses. As well, the user experience with Amazon TV compared to the Apple TV is smoother. It just works and is not buggy. And you can download content, which is a huge advantage over other streaming services.

Software Experience. This is an area where Apple has lost ground. iTunes feels bloated and outdated. Its productivity applications, from Mail to Calendar to Cloud, are not best-of-breed. Now, Amazon is not in all these areas. It picks and chooses its spots. But I find that, in many cases, Amazon has put function over form. Their stuff just works.

Innovation. I’ll admit that I was skeptical of the Echo. But this product has proven to be a sleeper hit. Why? Well, it’s an attractive piece of hardware that does a lot of little things really well and that, on a collective basis, proves to be surprisingly useful and a bit magical. Sort of what we thought about the iPhone and the iPad when they were first introduced. And with Alexa, they’ve taken voice recognition to a new level. With the Echo, I believe Amazon has, so far, outflanked Apple’s HomeKit in the smart home race.

I also believe Amazon panders a little less to the investment community than Apple does. Apple is under relentless pressure to meet what have become unrealistic expectations, which I believe has caused the company to release products or features that are either not fully thought through or not quite ready for market. Don’t get me wrong here – the iPhone is still the best phone, Apple’s computers are still the best computers, and their ecosystem is still the best ecosystem.

And Amazon is by no means perfect. They have had some major product failures, such as the Fire Phone (though they cut their losses pretty quickly). They have had working conditions in the U.S. akin to those Apple has gotten pummeled for in China. The New York Times piece last year on what it’s like to work at Amazon, even if it were only half true, is disturbing. The company does not always play well with others. And Amazon is pretty obtuse about discussing the performance of its individual parts. But you can see in the company a confidence and a connection with customers. This might seem a trite example, but you sense it in their TV commercials, in a way that you did in Apple’s, circa 2011-14. It’s an interesting time to reflect on what this founding member of the dot-com era has pulled off over the better part of 20 years.

Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.
  • stefnagel

    The first statement enshrines the writer’s goofy take: Wall Street is no fair judge: it’s a drunk uncle spewing opinions endlessly and mindlessly.

    • aardman

      I agree, it made my eye pop too. To quote:

      “Over the past year, Amazon’s stock has risen by about 50%, while Apple’s has fallen by 24%. This is a sign that some of Amazon’s longer term investments are starting to pay off”.

      How stupid is that statement? You evaluate the success of long term investments based on a stock price that is set mainly by people who have very little information on what’s really going on in the company and are mostly herd investors who are speculating based on rumor and buzz?

  • Toukale

    Oh come on now. The biggest issue I have with people is when they make those nonsensical argument when discussing Apple compare to others. There is a big difference between being an investor and a trader. If we are talking fundamentals then all those other companies including Amazon makes no sense with the way the market is valuing them. Amazon and a lot of companies out there are a good trade if that’s what you are (a trader). I have no problem with that and I agree on that point. But fundamentally Amazon is not a good investment simply because at the end of the day, there is no way Amazon can accomplish those things base on how the market is viewing them, anything other than perfection then they are screwed.

    If you are a trader, then by all means stay away from Apple. However, if you are an investor and you care about fundamentals, then Apple is the better investment.

  • jfutral

    What’s impressive about Amazon is less about commercial accomplishments or even the stock’s charts. What’s impressive is that their P/E is off the charts, at this moment a little more than 418. That’s a lot of expectations built into the stock price with no clear reason to believe Amazon would or could ever achieve that level of worth in any way shape form or fashion except in the most abstract of fantasy universes.

    But then irrational exuberance is always impressive to me.

    Joe

    • Toukale

      Well said. Amazon is great if you are a trader.

      • aardman

        Great if you are a trader who knows when to get out of a stock. Most people though hang on too long and lose their investments. They’re the cannon fodder, the mass sacrificial lambs, who make it possible for the few ‘great’ traders we hear about to make a lot of money.

        • longboard

          Traders do not necessarily hold long term, possibly swing trade for a few days.

          It’s about price action (price volatility) and volume that attracts traders. Liquidity is key. However, long-term holders will tolerate 30% drawdown if laddering a position, hedging, or managing risk exposure with forward contracts.

          Most retail traders are at a loss to what tools are available to manage risk and cost.

      • obarthelemy

        Anything is great if you’re a trader, you just need to be a good one.

    • aardman

      Amazon is attempting to become the first retailing monopoly in the US. The key word is ‘first’ because no one has ever done it before. That should tell us something.

      Their play of course is to sacrifice profits for now so as to kill all the competition, and then gouge all of us later. That presupposes two things: 1. Barriers to entry are high in retailing, and 2. The feds will let them get away with monopolistic gouging. I highly doubt those are true, and yes, despite the DoJ’s insanely favorable treatment of Amazon when a new entrant in eBook retailing broke their monopoly.

      • obarthelemy

        I’m not sure the eventual goal is that sinister (well, any more sinister than any corporation). If they stopped investing today, their returns would be very nice for a retailer. They’re foreseeing more returns if they keep investing, but they don’t need an exaggerated monopoly rent to justify that investment.

        • aardman

          It’s not sinister. It’s what all companies aim for. Choose a market and sew it up. It’s not a crime to aim for that, it’s a crime when you break antitrust laws in pursuit of your goals. Of course nobody needs exaggerated monopoly rents to survive, but that’s the nature of the free enterprise beast. The social contract is you go and maximize your profit but government comes down hard on you if you break the law in the process. The desired outcome for society is a happy balance where companies make enough money to keep innovating and fostering economic growth but not so much as to burden society with substantial deadweight welfare losses. I’d say a retailing monopoly generates substantial deadweight welfare losses.

          • jfutral

            I’d say it’s worse. Amazon’s mission seems to be, failing a retail monopoly, at least a cut from everything sold. All the grief Apple got for their percentage of goods sold through the Apple ecosystem, no one seems to care about Amazon’s equal cut from an order of magnitude larger base of retailers.

            Joe

    • stefnagel

      “I also believe that Amazon panders a little less to the investment community than Apple does.” In fact, Amazon is a Streetwalker living off the kindness of the strangers who inhabit WS, promising to its drunken johns that it will be the last store standing.

  • obarthelemy

    I think the two are utterly not comparable. Amazon is Walmart, Apple is iPhone.

    Amazon is succeeding in becoming the default choice for e-shopping. I tried to fight it and buy from smaller local sites, but there’s just no other store that has everything I need (last week: a new bed sheet, a 0.8mm to USB charger cable and a sleeve for my 12″ tablet, this week, the same charging cable for my travel kit, a large mouse, a small mouse, and a large keyboard). There’s always one weird item that makes me switch to Amazon. Half of my items are Amazon-sold and -shipped, the other half only Amazon-shipped, with the occasional Amazon-brand stuff and non-Amazon-shipped stuff.
    They have excellent choice and customer service, but their general-purpose UI is a pain to work with for more specialized purchases (IT…), Amazon relies on fuzzy text search instead of filters: took my 1+hr to select that wired backlit keyboard.
    At that point their path forward is straightforward: don’t drop the ball on prices, selection and service, expand the selection and maybe create bespoke e-shops to ease the purchasing process.

    Apple is utterly dependent on a single product line, for 60% of revenue directly plus another 20% indirectly. Since that market is maturing and Apple’s share is getting lower, no wonder Wall Street is jittery. There’s a huge wave of iP 4/5 upgraders coming up, things will look up if Apple got their lock-in right.

    The path forward is less clear: come up with a new category-creator, and/or keep siphoning ever more money out of customers, but w/o reaching the point where people realize Apple is 2-3x more expensive than superior competitors. No wonder they’ve hired so much branding mojo.

  • Hi all-
    One thing to make clear is that my thoughts are not focused on Amazon from an investment perspective. It’s more from the standpoint of reading the market, seeing where the puck is going, having a good sense of under-served market segments, and taking some risks to develop some exciting new products and services. And as stated, I have mixed feelings about them, especially from a personal perspective, in terms of some of their more rapacious business practices. But from a business standpoint it’s admirable, in the way Wal-Mart was admirable even as they were gutting Main Street USA.

    • obarthelemy

      Any company that creates jobs locally is less rapacious than a company that shop around for the cheapest possible subcontractors worldwide.

      • jfutral

        Ironically it is the local jobs Amazon has put in jeopardy.

        So where do you think Amazon has their products they sell (Kindle, Echo, et. al.) made? Where are most of the products they sell made?

        Joe

        • obarthelemy

          Depends on the definition of “local”. Let’s say “national”, with the attending protections and benefits.
          Complaining about a “national” employer practices and not mentioning them for the pan-national subcontracting champ is just weird. One is creating OK-quality jobs for nationals, the other one barrel-bottom sweatshops for people who can’t refuse. Yet who gets taken to task ?

          Plus Apple is essentially leasing ready-to-run factories to suppliers so as not to get its hand dirty with the sweatshop aspect. Amazon have the honesty to actually hire their warehouse workers. Even if under less than perfect conditions, the latter is vastly superior to the former.

          • jfutral

            All that “national” or “pan-national” talk pretty much means squat to my neighbor who, while surviving the onslaught of B&N, Borders, and others, lost his bookstore to Amazon and their lack of local focus.

            Joe

          • obarthelemy

            I know, concepts and abstractions are hard. The difference is key though. My “farmer co-op” in-law is a bit pissed when veggies come from another region, more pissed when they come from another EU country, and very pissed when they come from further away. He got that about right, employment-wise.
            Additionally, that’s a political problem: France has fixed-priced books, specifically to preserve local (as in local ^^) bookstores, and non-best-sellers. Amazon already tangled (and lost) with that, the best they can offer is the regular 5% discount and free shipping.
            We also have zoning laws to protect city-center small shops, though those have not been translated to delivery services. Yet ?

          • jfutral

            I agree that the differences are important. Amazon’s practices are causing a great deal of loss without contributing back to the economies they affect.

            At the local retail level Apple contributes where Amazon destroys. I bet Apple makes and assembles more of their products State side than Amazon.

            Amazon looks to even eliminate simple delivery jobs.

            So yes, the differences are significant.

            Joe

    • jfutral

      You’re first paragraph is what is throwing people off course.

      Joe

    • puggsly

      But beside web services they aren’t crushing it on any of the items you mentioned. Do you really think there is a big category in connected microphone/speaker devices? I’m guessing that the wearable microphones (ala AppleWatch/iPhone) are much more likely to be where the puck actually is heading.
      Sure, their Prime Video service followed Netflix well and the AmazonTV was a good knockoff of the AppleTV and both will continue to play leapfrog with each other over the coming years but Amazon is behind in each of these areas.
      In software, where is Amazon competing? They have no calendar service or mail service and even if you are not in love with iTunes, it is better than the web interface of similar services on Amazon. Further, the mobile apps on Amazon are no more compelling than those of Apple.
      Amazon is not skating to where the puck will be, it is skating to where people have the puck and trying to undercut them. If Amazon were profitable doing this it would be good capitalism but not good innovation. Problem is that they aren’t profitable with these things so it isn’t even good capitalism.
      IMHO

  • Pait

    I think the main issue with Apple is that the technology has reached a plateau. Apple’s great coup was to put an almost complete computer inside a cellphone. That they could do it has to do with good previous technology choices, dating from the Mac and NeXT computers; and with the fact that cell phone manufacturers had no useful PC technology.

    But now computer software and hardware advances have slowed; all phones are PCs; and it has become difficult to stay ahead of the also-runs and me-toos. Apple already has close to 100% of cell phone profits; how can it grow? It may try to make watches and cars into computers; but watches are not such a big deal, and cars are not a self-contained problem.

    Meanwhile, Amazon has a lot of room to expand in retail.

    • observer

      You’re assuming Apple has no more rabbits to pull out of the hat. That’s a risky assumption.

      • Pait

        They may well have. It’s not an “obvious” one, as putting good Unix software with a good interface on the PC and on the telephone were. Everyone knew what was to be done, Jobs’ company did it right. Not so clear now.

    • Kizedek

      “Apple already has close to 100% of cell phone profits; how can it grow?”

      Through marketshare, I imagine. Uh, you realise that 100% is relative to the thing you are measuring right? What if that thing were to grow? Then the value of your 100% has grown.

      Currently, Apple has very low phone marketshare — one reason for its low stock evaluation, apparently. But that’s an opportunity. Most of the non-consumption is gone (except in very poorest places), but feature phone users are trading up, and Android users can switch. Apple is now offering deals and apps for Android users, and its phone financing plans are expanding.

      Apple is still growing its slice of the PC pie, despite that pie having stopped growing.

      Apple can also expand in retail (new Stores opens new markets).

      Watches will be a significant contribution to bottom line. It’s just that iPhone is so large a business that no-one seems to notice that other Apple businesses like iTunes are each as big as other companies.

      • Pait

        Yes, Apple could increase market share, but as I wrote they don’t have a commanding technical advantage anymore – other makers have comparable products using Google software. So to increase sales, in richer or poorer countries, they’d have to lower prices.

        Desktops are a mature market. Many are as happy as I am to pay more for Apple – but not much more, I don’t think.

        Watches, I doubt. Cars, perhaps, but won’t be easy. Looking forward to an Apple car – we’ll see.

    • puggsly

      I love how people dismiss the watch. How many echo’s has amazon sold at it’s $100-$200 price point? Do you think it is as many as Apple sold watches? I’d bet not and the watches are $350+ devices. Apples to Oranges comparison? Maybe, but a quick twist of my wrist and hay siri and I have a personal mobile version of the Echo (less the whole room speaker). You may think the echo is the future of home automation but I say personal wearables are more likely.

      • Space Gorilla

        Well said. It seems obvious to me that Apple is slowly and methodically putting all the necessary pieces in play for home automation (I’ve been calling this the Apple Network of Things). As usual Apple’s iterative approach causes pundits to say Apple is late to the party, or missed the opportunity, or is too late to succeed, and so on. How many times will Apple have to successfully implement this strategy before pundits catch on that being first isn’t what matters? Doing something well is what matters.

  • observer

    Mark, I’m not sure why you’re comparing these two companies. You go through your own list of comparisons and conclude that one horse runs a bit faster than the other one. What, really, is your point?

  • stefnagel

    “And with Echo, I believe Amazon has so far outflanked Apple’s HomeKit in the smart home race.” These repeat the most famous, lost words spoken over the last ten years in tech.

  • Dominicf

    Excellent article.

    The Amazon Echo is a game changer. I am very surprised that people are not seing this.

    You’ll be able to control everything in your home with Echo. It will be integrated in your car (coming to Ford cars). You can already order food (at least a pizza from Domino’s for now), listen music via Spotify, order a Uber ride etc.

    There is so many possibilities.

    Echo is way better that SIRI and the market is gonna be big my friends.

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