Four tech giants - Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google - have added $2 trillion to their combined market capitalization since the 2007-09 recession, a sum that approaches the GDP of India. The concentrated wealth and power of these companies has alarmed many observers, who see their growth as a threat not just to consumers and other businesses but to American society itself.
After spending most of the past decade researching these companies, I’ve come to the conclusion that our fears are misplaced in focusing on what I call the Four. We should instead be worrying about the One: one firm that will come to dominate search, hardware and cloud computing, that will control a vast network of far-flung businesses, that can ravage entire sectors of the economy simply by announcing its interest in them.
That firm is Amazon. Jeff Bezos has been disciplined and single-minded in his vision of investing in the most enduring consumer wants—price, convenience and selection. Coupled with deft execution, it has made Amazon the most impressive and feared firm in business.
As for the other three, don’t be misled by their current successes. They are falling behind as the One marches ahead.
Google seems to have a commanding market position when it comes to search functions. As European Union regulators pointed out in their recent antitrust finding, Google has an astonishing 90% share in the category in Europe. Its share in the U.S. is 64%. But it’s a very different story in the narrower, and more lucrative, domain of product search. In 2015, more product searches in the U.S. began on Amazon than on search engines, including Google (44% vs. 34%), according to BloomReach. A year later, Amazon’s share grew to 55%. Amazon could reasonably be described as a search engine with a warehouse attached to it.
For years, Apple has been the undisputed king of hardware innovation. But the prize for the most disruptive recent device goes to the hands-free, voice-controlled Amazon Echo speaker and its buttery voice, Alexa. Research firm Gartner predicts that 30% of computing will be screenless by 2020. So far, Apple looks to have blown an early lead in the great voice race: With 700 million iPhones in use world-wide, Apple’s Siri still has the most share in voice overall. But Amazon’s share of voice on home devices—the next frontier—is 70%.
Today’s fastest-growing sector in tech is cloud computing. There are several big players in the field, including old and new tech: IBM , Microsoft , Google. The dominant player again is Amazon, with a business launched originally to support its internal computing needs. According to Synergy Research Group, Amazon’s cloud offering (called Amazon Web Services) enjoys more than 30% of the market, triple the share of the No. 2, Microsoft’s Azure, and will register $16 billion in revenue in 2017. Financial pundits, looking for something negative to say about Amazon’s recent quarterly earnings, highlighted that growth in the company’s cloud business had slowed to 43%. “Slowed to 43%” is not a phrase you read in any other equity analyst’s write-up of a large company in 2017.
Amazon’s consistent outperformance of the other three tech giants is distinct from its continued dominance of old-economy firms. With the acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon will likely become the fastest-growing online and bricks-and-mortar retailer. The whole grocery sector—with $612 billion in U.S. sales in 2016—has been disrupted overnight by Amazon. In the months between the announcement and closing of Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods this year, the largest pure-play grocer, Kroger , lost nearly a third of its market value.
The late business professor C.K. Prahalad of the University of Michigan famously argued that the most successful firms focus not on one market but on one “core competence.” Amazon has proved otherwise. What Amazon has accomplished across industries is unprecedented, even among the most successful businesses. Nike does not have a cloud business; Starbucks is not developing original TV content; Wal-Mart has not filed patents for warehouses in the sky. Amazon has recently been granted patents for a floating warehouse and small drones that can self-assemble into bigger drones capable of transporting larger packages, reflecting the ability, one day, to operate intricate networks of fulfillment by air. Other firms are punished for straying from their familiar areas of strength; Amazon sucks value from sectors in which it has had no previous involvement just by glancing at them.
At New York University’s business school, where I teach, I have for years kept a close watch on which firms are winning the competition for the most talented students. A decade ago, the top recruiter was American Express , with investment banks vying for second position. Now the clear winner is Amazon: 12 students from my most recent class have opted for a life of rain and overrated coffee in the Pacific Northwest.
Why does Amazon’s ascent matter? Aren’t lower prices and greater efficiencies better for everyone? They are, in all the obvious ways, but that’s not a complete picture. Amazon’s seemingly boundless growth forces us to wrestle with difficult questions about the reasons for its dominance.
For one, Amazon, unlike any other firm its size, has changed the basic compact with financial markets.
It has replaced the expectation for profits with a focus on vision and growth, managing its business to break even while investors bid up its stock price.
This radical approach has provided the company with a staggering advantage in free-flowing capital. Google, Facebook, Wal-Mart and most Fortune 500 companies are saddled with expectations of profits. Many firms would be much more innovative if they were given a license to operate without the nuisance of profitability. Amazon has thus had enormous capital on hand to invest in delivery networks, especially the crucial last link for getting goods to the doorsteps of consumers, without having to worry that they don’t yield immediate profits.
Amazon’s strategy of break-even operations also means that it has virtually no profits to tax. Since 2008, Wal-Mart has paid $64 billion in federal income taxes, while Amazon has paid just $1.4 billion. Yet, while paying low taxes, Amazon has added $220 billion in value to the stock held by its shareholders over the past 24 months—equivalent to the entire market capitalization of Wal-Mart.
Something is deeply amiss when a company can ascend to almost a half trillion dollars in market value—becoming the fifth most valuable firm in the world—without paying any meaningful income tax. Does Amazon really owe so little to support public revenue and public needs? If a giant firm pays less than the average 24% in income taxes that the companies of the S&P 500 pay, it logically means that less-successful firms pay more. In this way, Amazon further adds to the winner-take-all tendencies plaguing our economy.
Because Amazon is more efficient than other retailers, it is able to transact the same amount of business with half the employees. If Amazon continues to grow its business by $20 billion a year, the annual toll of lost jobs for merchants, buyers and cashiers will be in the tens of thousands by my calculations. Disruption in the U.S. labor force is nothing new—we have just never dealt with a company that is so ruthless and single-minded about it.
I recently spoke at a conference the day after Jeff Bezos. During his talk, he made the case for a universal guaranteed income for all Americans. It is tempting to admire his progressive values and concern for the public welfare, but there is a dark implication here too. It appears that the most insightful mind in the business world has given up on the notion that our economy, or his firm, can support that pillar of American identity: a well-paying job.
Amazon has brought us many benefits, but we all must recognize that the rise of the One brings with it much more than free two-day delivery. “Alexa, is this a good thing?”