The Anti-Apple Market

John Gruber points to Amazon’s willingness to use its valuable home page to antagonize Apple and its fans by deriding the iPad mini in comparison to the Kindle Fire HD:

I’m sure some people will love it; they’re going for the anti-Apple market.

I first learned about Amazon while working at Apple in the mid-1990′s. There was a series of mail-sorting cubby holes in a hall at work, and I remember noticing the Amazon-branded boxes multiply as my colleagues turned on to the dead-simple innovation: a huge selection of books and music delivered to your door for a reasonable price.

Although I was an early, occasional patron of internet commerce, I looked at Amazon with some derision because of a character flaw. For as much as I appreciate and yearn for innovation, I tend to overvalue the status quo. These folks were buying nearly all their books and music online. My internal dialogue judged them as entitled and too lazy to support a local shop. They may well have been, but a few years later, I was shopping at Amazon too.

From the beginning Amazon has shared Apple’s focus on simplification and iterative improvement. Their catalog evolved into the internet’s de facto product review authority. It’s as easy today to buy all your toilet paper from Amazon as it was to buy all your books from them 15 years ago. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s reputation for customer-focused innovation is often compared with Steve Jobs’s mastery of that art.

The company has grown consistently from within but also through judicious acquisition. The companies they buy typically share that quality of providing customers with some product at a level of service that was previously thought infeasible. Zappos sold upscale shoes with an unfathomably generous return policy. The IMDB collected an unprecedented database of information for film buffs. Audible cracked open the market for digital audio books. I made my first CD Now purchase through a terminal connection over telnet! “Amazon companies” are always innovative, and focused primarily on the service of premium customers.

As with Apple, Amazon’s pursuit of premium customers has resulted in a strong appeal to the mass market. I believe that companies like Amazon and Apple have expanded the expectations of the mass market, such that it’s getting easier to market a company based on its unique, premium innovations. The “anti-Apple” market historically pooh-poohs these advantages, reducing the product landscape to a crude, high-level comparison of features and prices. This is what Amazon has done on their home page, comparing the $199 Kindle Fire HD to the $329 iPad mini, while audaciously claiming they offer “Much More for Much Less.”

Since when does Amazon target the anti-Apple market? The companies compete in a growing number of areas including digital music, movies, and eBooks. But Amazon has thrived with this competition largely because it targets the same market that Apple does, while doing some things better than Apple. From the early days when my colleagues were tearing open shipping boxes at Infinite Loop, to the present time when many Mac and iPhone aficionados cling tenaciously to their authentic Amazon Kindles, the pro-Apple market is the pro-Amazon market. Why would a company that has historically aimed so high change its focus to the lower end?

I see this as a rare example of concession on Amazon’s part. Traditionally when the company discovers they are not the best in a market they wish to dominate, they acquire the stunning leader and integrate the advantages. Here they are going up against Apple, which happens to be both the largest company in the world and also the most inimitable hardware designer. Amazon can’t buy it, and Amazon can’t copy it. They must compete on price, and they must confuse on features. They must go anti-Apple, which is a shame for Amazon and a shame for customers, but it’s the only reasonable choice they have.