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.

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.