The Washington Post

In corporate battles, customers may be casualties


Customers pose with their Apple Inc. iPhone 5 smartphones after purchasing them at SoftBank Corp.'s flagship store in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. (Kyoshi Ota/BLOOMBERG)

What do the Washington Monument and Amazon’s Kindle Fire have in common?

Decisions by some of America’s biggest companies — acting in their own interests, not those of their customers — have made both harder to find.

Those hoping to locate the Washington Monument lost out in Apple’s rush to launch its own mapping app and banish the remarkably accurate, detailed one long provided for free by Google.

The list of mapping errors discovered as the new iPhone 5 hit the streets goes beyond the misplaced marker honoring the first U.S. president. Chicago’s iconic Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) also was in the wrong place. So was an Apple store in Sydney. London’s Paddington Station, meanwhile, was missing entirely, according to a handy compilation by the Huffington Post.

What was behind this rare misstep by one of the richest and most admired companies in history? Was it flaws with Google’s maps that hurt Apple’s customers? No. It was Apple’s sharpening rivalry with Google, another one of the richest and most admired companies in history — and one that increasingly has moved into Apple’s lucrative smartphone and computer tablet businesses.

This big strategic bet, if it gives Apple a long-term edge over Google, may turn out to be worth this week’s embarrassment for the company. No doubt the mapping errors are frantically being fixed somewhere in Cupertino, Calif., home to Apple’s headquarters, right now.

But if you are a consumer rather than a shareholder, it’s worth pondering what the future will look like if Apple — or Google, for that matter — comes to dominate the high-tech industry. How often will it make business sense to banish a popular product in hopes of gaining advantage over a competitor?

It’s a question Wal-Mart’s customers might be asking after news that the world’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer has decided to stop selling the Kindle Fire, a popular tablet that happens to be made by the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.

Again, the strategic logic is clear: Why should Wal-Mart help Amazon peddle a device whose main goal is to sell other stuff — including plenty of stuff, such as movies, books, and housewares, that Wal-Mart also sells?

If there was any doubt that the Kindle is more of an Amazon showroom than a pure computer device, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made clear the focus on sellable content in launching the latest line of them this month. “We want to make money when people use our devices, not when they buy our devices,” he said.

Wal-Mart’s response makes total sense. Unless, that is, you are a customer who happens to want to buy a Kindle.

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