Why Amazon is Not the New Apple

on January 3, 2012

Over the last few months I have heard and read many comments about the idea that Amazon is the new Apple. In fact, in a very good piece in Forbes, E.D. Cain asks if Amazon is the new Apple directly. He makes some good points to suggest that Amazon is very much following in Apple’s footsteps and even has created some innovations of their own with their price check mobile app and their Kindle book purchasing process.

But I believe the answer to this question is no, Amazon is not the new Apple. The reasons for this are many. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for Amazon and Jeff Bezos. However, Jeff Bezos’s is not the second coming of Steve Jobs and he would be the first one to tell you that. Amazon’s business is very different from Apple’s and though they have some similar goals, such as creating an ecosystem of products and services for their customers, their approaches differ greatly.

Perhaps the most glaring difference is Apple’s total approach to the market. Most importantly, all of their hardware, software and services originate inside Apple. They write the OS so they can customize hardware to be maximized around their proprietary OS platform. Amazon, as well as all of the other vendors competing with Apple, must rely on Google or Microsoft for their code and are always at a disadvantage to Apple in this area.

Also, Apple has all of their design in-house led by recently Knighted Sir Jonathon Ives. Most of the vendors have to rely on ODMs for their products and this too is a disadvantage when it comes to industrial design and its integration with their software offerings.

While Amazon is the world’s greatest retailer, Apple’s stores are re-writing the rules of technology retailing around the world. You buy from Amazon if you know exactly what you want since you can’t touch or feel the products online. But the reason that Apple is driving millions of people into their stores around the world is that Apple knows full well that the majority of potential users are not tech literate and need help buying exactly what they need.

But one thing that really distinguishes Apple from Amazon and their competitors, is that Apple is a leader and all of the others are followers . This started when Apple introduced the Mac itself and decided to use the 3.5 inch floppy in the Mac and made their competitors kill the 5.5 inch floppies back in 1985-1986. Apple was the first to put a CD Rom drive in Macs in 1989 and ushered in the era of multimedia computing. By 1992, all PCs had CD Roms inside. In 1999 Apple added color to PC cases and created the all-in-one PC. Now all PCs have color and all-in-ones rule the desktop market. Even more recently, Apple created the first real “ultrabook” with the MacBook Air and now everyone is chasing them again.

Apple’s genius is also in re-inventing products, which continues to reinforce their leadership position. They did not invent the MP3 player. They did however re-invent it. They did not invent the Smartphone. They re-invented it. They did not invent the tablet. They re-invented it. And in each of these product categories, they force their competitors to play catch up.

What’s more is that Apple casts a long shadow in this area. A more current example is the hybrid computing. In my 2012 predictions, I stated that we should see many hybrids (laptops with screens that come off and double as tablets) this year. But, many of the vendors I talk to who have hybrids in the works have told me that their biggest fear is that Apple will do a hybrid and do it so well that it will force them back to the drawing boards and put them behind, even though they thought they would be ahead. Now, nobody even knows if Apple is doing a hybrid but just the threat of Apple doing one strikes fear in their competitors.

But in the end, the fact that Apple continues to play a major leadership role in the industry is the real reason Amazon and other companies, who might like to think that they could become the next Apple, are still only followers. It is unclear to me if Apple will ever give up that role given their complete control of their ecosystem and the rich talent they have inside the company. But until another company can create this same dynamic, I suspect that there will not be another company that can lay claim to being the next Apple.