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Amazon poised to surpass Apple as most valuable public company

For years, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was pilloried by Wall Street and the media for the e-commerce giant's habit of spending too much and earning too little. But that strategy has paid off in spades, with the company quickly gaining on Apple as the most valuable publicly traded company in the world. Some think the torch could be passed as early as Thursday, when Amazon reports what analysts expect to be another quarter of blockbuster earnings.  

As of Tuesday's close, the Seattle-based company, which was founded in 1994, had a market capitalization of $874 billion, nearing Apple's $941 billion. The 42-year-old Apple first earned the most-valuable-company designation in 2011 when it briefly topped ExxonMobil, which had held the top spot since 2006. Of course, even if Amazon dethrones Apple this week, the iPhone maker could retake the market cap lead after its July 31 quarterly earnings report.

"Amazon just has all the wind at its back right now," said Daniel Ives, chief strategy officer and head of technology research at GBH Insights, before the earnings were released. "It's hard to argue that Amazon right now is not just the most powerful company from a trend perspective, but I think it has the greenest pastures ahead in terms of where they're heading."

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Other big companies -- including industrial giants that have been around for more than a century, such as Boeing (market cap $207 billion), 3M ($119 billion) and General Motors ($55 billion) -- are worth far less than the high-flying tech companies because their prospects for earnings growth are nowhere near as strong. Market watchers expect both Amazon and Apple to eventually have valuations topping $1 trillion.

"If Amazon wins the race to $1 trillion, it's testimony once again that investors value growth [stocks with fast-rising earnings] over value [stocks that can be bargains long term]," Gene Munster, founder and managing partner at Loup Ventures, wrote in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "Amazon is growing at 20 percent for the next few years, and Apple is growing at 10 percent."

Amazon shareholders have already had a extraordinarily good year. The company's stock has surged more than 57 percent since January, outperforming Apple, which has gained more than 14 percent, and Facebook, which has added more than 22 percent. During that same period, the broad market benchmark S&P 500 rose 5.8 percent. Analysts' average 52-week price target on Amazon is $1,888.74, not far from its Tuesday closing price of $1,829.

One of the main reasons for Amazon's success has been its cloud computing operation, Amazon Web Services (AWS), founded as a side business more than a decade ago. AWS, which stores data for Fortune 500 companies among many others, has become huge. It generated operating profit in the most recent quarter of $1.4 billion, with North America as its largest market.

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As of the first quarter, Amazon controlled 40 percent of the public cloud market, according to Synergy Research Group. Its next largest competitors, Microsoft and Google, had 13 percent and 9 percent shares, respectively, though they've begun to gain at Amazon's expense, said John Dinsdale, Synergy's chief analyst and managing director.

"Inevitably AWS' growth rate will not be as high as Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform -- that is just the law of large numbers," he wrote in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "Irrespective of the growth rate percentages, in absolute dollars the incremental quarterly growth in AWS revenues far surpasses that of Azure, Google et al. Azure is doing remarkably well, and Google and Alibaba also -- but so is AWS."