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?

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.

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

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.