Today Microsoft launched its Azure cloud platform, so it is time for another spreadsheet. To properly compare Microsoft, Google & Amazon, I am using the gross profit (instead of revenue) and net profit numbers. Gross profit is in some sense the real revenue of a company after paying its outside suppliers; gross profit is what is available to pay its employees, pay the rent and so on. For a software company, the cost of goods sold is close to zero, so most of the revenue is gross profit. But for a retailer, as much as 70-80% of revenue goes to its suppliers, so gross profit is the better measure of the economic productivity the company achieves. The numbers below use rough annualized estimates based on the most recent quarter.
Do you notice the dramatic difference? Google and Microsoft are in another planet altogether compared to Amazon. Google has practically the same headcount as Amazon, yet drives three times the gross profit. The numbers really illustrate Amazon’s competitive strategy in cloud computing; to quote Nick Carr:
Bezos goes on to note that Amazon’s retailing operation is “a low gross margin business” compared to software and technology businesses, which “tend to have very high margins.” The relatively low profitability of the retailing business gave Amazon the incentive to create a highly efficient, highly automated computing system, which in turn could become the foundation for a set of cloud computing services that could be sold at low enough prices to attract a large clientele. It also made a low-margin utility business attractive to the firm in a way that it isn’t for a lot of large tech companies who are averse to making big capital investments in new, low-margin businesses.
“On the surface, superficially, [cloud computing] appears to be very different [from our retailing business],” Bezos sums up. “But the fact is we’ve been running a web-scale application for a long time, and we needed to build this set of infrastructure web services just to be able to manage our own internal house.”
Microsoft’s announcement is interesting from a technology point of view, but it is hard to see how the economics would work for them against Amazon. It is very hard for companies to go down the value chain for growth, so I am skeptical Microsoft would easily accept Amazon-like margins. On the other hand, for Amazon, cloud services have to deliver only a little higher margin than retail to be well worth the investment. That is not a tough hurdle, because retail is one of the toughest businesses out there.