There’s a term child psychologists use for toddlers who engage in play next to each another, but don’t directly interact: it’s called parallel play, and every parent has seen this activity. It’s typical from about 18-30 months or so, after which kids start to actually play together.

The term came to mind recently as I watched the two major forces in the computing world each do their best to capture share of mind and wallet. Apple announced (or confirmed anyway) that it’s going to offer a smaller tablet, called the iPad Mini. And Microsoft launched its first all-new operating system in a decade, logically named Windows 8.

Both companies are striving to push the envelope, although it can be argued that Microsoft is playing catch-up to Apple in many ways. Neither company currently acknowledges the other, or will admit that the actions of one directly impact the activity of the other. But the underlying truth is that neither company would be where they are without the other, and consumers in general would be less well off in terms of options. Adding Google and Amazon into the mix just makes things more interesting (especially for the lawyers).

Ask anyone in retail about their competition, and you’ll most likely get a sour look and some disparaging remarks about whichever opponent is causing the most grief this week. We all complain about the competition, and how much better things would be if they would just do us all a favor and go out of business. But the plain truth is that competition is a good thing, and not just for our customers.

There’s a lot we can learn from competition; in my store managing days I spent many hours across the street looking at what the bad guys were doing. This wasn’t about copying best practices (although I will admit to pilfering a good idea from time to time). The greater opportunity is just as often learning about what’s missing across the street, and making sure that we are filling in those gaps in the offer.

In addition, our competitors tell us how we’re doing; competition provides a point of reference by which we can measure ourselves. We get a better sense of our own value proposition as viewed from the outside, and where we need to adjust in order to stay relevant. Being in a business with no competition is a dangerous and scary place to be.

As a marketer I’ve never been a fan of going after competitors directly, as in “we have lower prices than x.” I don’t believe in acknowledging the competition with my own customers, and while we all know that our customers know, calling the opponent by name just legitimizes them. But the concept of parallel play is one that I think has merit in the business world; in this case it means staying close enough to see what’s going on over there, while not interacting or engaging  with our nemesis directly.

This post originally appeared on The Shelf Edge and has been reposted with permission.