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Tale of two companies: Apple's profit and Amazon's loss

Apple made $8bn profit last quarter, while Amazon lost $28m. Yet the two companies are treated as equally successful. Why?

The Grand Central Apple Store, a recent opening by the company. Photograph: Apple

Two giants of the technology world posted their quarterly results yesterday evening, with the differences highlighting the gulf between them – both in finances, and perceptions.

Apple's earnings report for the fourth quarter 2012 showed an $8.2bn profit on $36bn in revenue. This is a new Q4 record for the company, topping this quarter last year when it earned $6.62bn profit on $28.27bn revenue. The gains were largely due to an increase in stock shipped: iPad sales went from 11m to 14m, and iPhone sales from 17m to 26.9m, both year-on-year (the figures don't include the iPhone 5 to any significant degree, which was only on sale for the last nine days of the quarter). The rest of Apple's business held largely flat, with the exception of the iPod line which continued losing share to smartphones. The average gross margin, in particular, was essentially unchanged at 40 per cent.

At the other end of the West Coast, in Seattle, Amazon announced its results. Net sales were up 27 per cent year-on-year, at $13.81bn – but operating income fell to a loss of $28m, down from the $79m profit it made last year. That loss wasn't unexpected – the company had been warning that it expected a loss of between $50m and $350m – but it reaffirms the image of Amazon as a company unconcerned with profit.

Much of the money has been spent on heavy investment, and the Verge writes that Amazon Web Services and Kiva Systems have been particular beneficiaries of the spending. The former is the spin-off from the company's core business, and provides web services – hence the name – to a number of other companies, ranging from garage start-ups to behemoths like Reddit. That business suffered a blow earlier this week when it experienced a sustained outage, which underscores the need for further investment.

Kiva Systems is Amazon's recently-acquired robotic warehouse-management system. Depending on how cool you find robots in warehouses, it does pretty cool stuff for Amazon's productivity, but has yet to be put into widespread usage.

Despite the fact that these results are as different as night and day, reaction to both was muted. Apple failed to meet the guesses made by Wall Street, which had forecast even higher sales particularly of iPads. The Q3 results were artificially depressed by the lack of availability of the then-new first generation retina iPad, and some were expecting a bigger bounce back from that than there actually was.

There was also disappointment in financial sectors about Amazon's performance. This is the second quarter running in which the company has posted a loss, despite sales in the tens of billions, and many investors are starting to wonder if the company really is preparing for profit, or if this is the way Amazon will always be run.

I wrote last week about the ways Amazon could be planning to get into profit, and they all boil down to dominating a market. Either the company's expansion into same-day delivery allows it to conclusively deal the killing blow to traditional retail; or it's domination of book selling allows it to bully publishers into handing over ever greater shares of the margin; or its new Kindles allow it to move low-margin sales of physical media over to high-margin sales of digital media.

At the time, I worried about the pitfalls that lay in the way of each of those aims, but it looks like there might be a new one: if Amazon's investors see many more quarters like these last two, they may not stick around for the promised light at the end of the tunnel.