Why Fierce Competitors Apple and Amazon Became ’Frenemies’ Over eReaders

New research by Feng Zhu and colleagues reveals why sometimes it's better for fierce competitors like Apple and Amazon to work together.
by Michael Blanding

Let's get one thing straight from the start: Apple and Amazon are not friends. If they were high school students, they'd be mean girls glaring at each other from opposite sides of the cafeteria, jealously forcing their friends to pick sides between Team Chloe and Team Madison.

To put it into market terms, both companies would like nothing better than to have customers to themselves, wrapped up in their own seamless media universes: iTunes, iPad, and Apple TV on the one hand; and Kindle, Amazon Prime, and Fire TV on the other.

“Even though these platforms are competing aggressively with each other, along certain dimensions they are collaborating”

So why would Amazon release a version of its Kindle Reader on Apple's iPad, allowing users to access its library of exclusive digital books? "Doesn't that diminish interest in the Kindle device?" asks Feng Zhu, an assistant professor in the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School.

And why would Apple ever allow a Kindle app in its App Store in the first place? "We all know historically Apple often says no to apps that directly compete with Apple's own offerings," says Zhu. "In this case, Apple also sells e-books through its own iBooks app, so why would [Apple] ever say yes?"

Such questions intrigued Zhu, whose research covers competitive strategy and innovation in high-tech industries. Along with Ron Adner of Dartmouth and Jianqing Chen of The University of Texas at Dallas, he appropriated a familiar term for these strange bedfellows. "Even though these platforms are competing aggressively with each other, along certain dimensions they are collaborating," says Zhu. "We call them 'frenemies.'"

In a new working paper, Frenemies in Platform Markets: The Case of Apple's iPad vs. Amazon's Kindle, the researchers use a complex mathematical model to get to the bottom of just why enemies might decide to share a locker. It boils down to a difference in how they make their money.

"Even though both [companies] make money from hardware and content, their profit foci are quite different," says Zhu. "Amazon is not really making a profit on hardware sales. It prices its hardware low as a way to encourage people to buy a lot of e-books." Apple, on the other hand, makes several hundred dollars on each iPad sale, able to charge a premium because of the hundreds of other features it is able to offer through the App Store.

Making Up For Lost Sales

Those different strategies do more than just reduce competition between the two platforms, they also actually drive them to work together. "By making Kindle Reader available on the iPad, Apple will be able to attract more iPad buyers. The additional profit Apple generates from hardware sales more than compensates for the reduced e-book sales through iBooks," says Zhu. "At the same time, Amazon will be able to sell more e-books, and the additional profit Amazon generates from e-book sales is greater than the loss in reduced Kindle device sales."

That collaboration could make the two platforms differentiate themselves further, causing Apple to focus even more on device sales and Amazon more on book sales for their profits. Through their mathematical model, Zhu and his collaborators show this phenomenon holds true in the face of multiple scenarios. "The beauty about the mathematical model is that it allows us to show mathematically that our intuition works; it also allows us to investigate how various factors such as different platform production costs and exclusive content affect the two platforms' incentives to work together."

Nor are frenemies limited to the Apple-Amazon example. The same pattern may emerge when competing platforms with asymmetric profit strategies.

For example, Amazon recently listed its Chinese e-commerce site as a virtual store on the massive Chinese exchange Alibaba, which would seem like a direct conflict, kind of like Lowes opening a store inside Home Depot. But since Amazon makes its profits from product sales to consumers, while Alibaba makes money from service and advertising fees from merchants, both could help the other increase its overall bottom line.

Similarly, Microsoft raised eyebrows for making its proprietary MS Office software available on Apple's iPad—after all, the software was one of the major selling points of Microsoft's competing tablet Surface. "That was one of the reasons people bought Surface to begin with," says Zhu. "By making Office available on iPad, you would think Microsoft is helping its direct competitor." But Microsoft has always been primarily a software company—by charging a premium to unlock advance features on its Office apps, it might be able to more than make up for lost revenue from decreased Surface sales.

When It's Better To Be Enemies

Not all competitors have the potential to become frenemies, however. Microsoft and Sony still compete bitterly to persuade video game producers to create exclusive content for their gaming consoles—Xbox and PlayStation, respectively. In that case, the two platforms are making their money in the same way, leaving them insufficient room to collaborate.

Zhu and his collaborators predict that as digitization increasingly de-couples hardware and software in many industries, corporate frenemies may become more common. With the increasing emphasis on added software services in automobiles, for example, car companies may have incentive to use competitors' software in their dashboards, provided they have asymmetric profit strategies (car sales vs. value-added services).

"Firms' business models today are increasingly multisided, which allows them to generate profits from multiple sources. The multisidedness provides flexibility for firms to choose their profit foci, and creates opportunities for competing platform owners to cooperate. Our model can help managers consider such incentives, and determine whether there is room for them to work together," says Zhu.

If their model shows anything, it's that there is much more room for collaboration among competitors than it might readily appear. If there is hope for such vicious rivals as Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, then maybe there's hope for Chloe, Madison, and Ashley, too.

About the Author

Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts

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    • Ron McQuaid
    • Professor, University of Stirling
    Interesting piece and useful application and Maths model. The the basic idea has links to earlier terms(e.g. "Co-opetiton", or "Co-ompetition", as it was sometimes called, was when organisations have both a co-operative and competitive relationship in different circumstances).

    That term was supposedly coined in the 1990s by Ray Noorda, the former CEO of Novell. It was also applied to small Italian wool dealers.

    The European Union/Community and European Spece Agency have even used the term in their agreement that, in space exploration in the 21st century, Europe is now leading the way towards a future where common interests, and friendly 'co-opetition', works for the betterment of society.

    So I'd be interested in how the added sophistication of the new models might be adapted for wider issues.
    • Bryan
    • upright, very little
    Also, the weird relationship of Samsung and Apple--they compete directly for phone sales, sue each other for patent infringement, but Samsung remains a major supplier of components for Apple hardware. So at the same time they are fighting, they are tied together.
    • Afaizee
    • President, Escuela Superior de Idiomas
    It's great to see that the sum of the parts is great than the whole! These synergies will only improve the customer improvement in the long run as companies strive for a win-win in their business collaborations.
    • Hugh Quick
    • home, none
    I get less diplomatic as I get older, and I was never a candidate for the Foreign Office. This research reminds me of the Oozle bird, now extinct, which flew in ever decreasing circles until ,finally, it disappeared as a result of this manoevre.
    • Eric Budd
    • Improvement Coordinator, Peaker Services, Inc.
    Since the 1950s, W. Edwards Deming has taught about the benefits of competitors cooperating to generate a win-win for all. Most managers do not see themselves as part of the larger system which includes customers, supply chains and other companies. Through cooperation, they can expand their markets rather than battle for slices of the existing market. Unfortunately, this example occurs like a new concept to many.