It's fair to say that Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) powerful ecosystem of closely integrated hardware, software, and services has proven to be a key competitive advantage for the company. Investors who buy one Apple product can be easily tempted to buy another. Meanwhile, customers who already have multiple Apple products may feel compelled to stick around for years.

After all, Apple's products all run their own unique operating systems. And these user-friendly products, software, and services are all carefully woven together to make owning several Apple products and services seamless.

iPhone X, Apple Watch, and Airpods charging on Apple's AirPower mat

Apple's ecosystem features carefully integrated hardware, software, and services. Image source: Apple.

For investors looking for companies with strong ecosystems like this, look no further than Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG) and (NYSE:CRM). Both companies may be extremely different from Apple, but they both benefit from powerful, market-leading ecosystems with high switching costs.

Here's a look at each company.

Company Market Capitalization 5-Year Compound Average Sales Growth
Intuitive Surgical $47 billion 7.5% $80 billion 30%

Data source: Reuters. Table by author.

Intuitive Surgical

With its highly advanced da Vinci surgical systems, Intuitive Surgical is a global technology leader in robotic-assisted, minimally invasive surgery.

Highlighting its powerful ecosystem, management calls the da Vinci surgical system "a surgical platform designed to enable complex surgery using a minimally invasive approach" (emphasis mine). And this isn't just astute wording. Intuitive Surgical's platform includes a patient-side cart with interactive arms, a high-performance vision system for doctors, a wide and ever-growing selection of Intuitive Surgical's specialized EndoWrist instruments and other accessories, the underlying software for these machines, and services.

With a platform of products that work together cohesively and create higher switching costs the more customers are invested in the ecosystem, Intuitive Surgical's platform of unique, complimentary products create a competitive advantage by making it difficult for competitors to imitate it.

Because of the competitive advantage created by its strong ecosystem of products, accessories, and services, Intuitive Surgical has undeniable pricing power. This is particularly evident by the company's consistently fat gross profit margin, which has been between about 66% and 70% in the past five years and is at 70% in the trailing 12 months.


Another leader in its space, Salesforce, is a world leader in customer relationship management (CRM). As customers adopt Salesforce's software-as-a-service CRM platform in droves, Salesforce's revenue is skyrocketing. Revenue in its third fiscal quarter of 2018, for instance, was up 25% year over year while non-GAAP EPS climbed 63% during the same period.

And management sees this momentum continuing. Salesforce hit an annual revenue run-rate of $10 billion during the second quarter of fiscal year 2018 and is already setting its sights on a $20 billion annual run rate. It was just over two and a half years ago when Salesforce hit a $5 billion revenue run rate.

Covering essentially all of its clients' customer touch points for customer relationship management, Salesforce's comprehensive solutions create a wide ecosystem of products and high customer switching costs.

In its second-quarter earnings call (via a Thomson Reuters transcript), Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff put the reach and scale of its ecosystem into perspective:

Now we see that by our -- through our #1 position, and that's because we're #1 in CRM, #1 in sales, #1 in service, #1 in marketing, and we have the #1 platform, that we have a tremendous opportunity to deliver on these goals. And we're delivering this at a scale every single day, creating nearly 3 million sales opportunities, more than 5 million customer cases, sending 1.4 billion emails, processing 1 million purchases and producing 40 million reports and dashboards every single day -- that's 1 billion reports and dashboards a month, by the way -- all the while delivering more than 5 billion platform transactions a day.

With every new customer and every new data point, Salesforce is reinforcing its leadership position as it scales its business and becomes increasingly vital to its client's daily operations.

The risks

One of the biggest risks of buying these stocks is their valuation. Buying market leaders with Apple ecosystem-like competitive advantages doesn't come cheap. Intuitive Surgical has a price-to-sales ratio of 15.5, compared to an average of 4.8 to for peers in the medical devices industry. Salesforce's price-to-sales ratio of 8.1 is also above the average 6.2 price-to-sales ratio of peers in software applications. 

A surgeon sitting in front of a surgeon console as part of a da Vinci system.

Surgeon console, surgeon, da Vinci patient cart, and instruments. Image source: Intuitive Surgical.

If either of these companies somehow lets its leadership positions erode, their pricing power, ecosystems, and customer switching costs could lose their edge, making their premium valuations no longer worth it. For now, however, Intuitive Surgical and Salesforce's strong Apple ecosystem-like competitive advantages look poised to help these companies maintain strong market leadership positions for years.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.