“The clouds surrounding Amazon.com are thickening,” began theWashington Post article by David Streitfeld on Feb. 21, 2001. In the previous year, stockholders had suddenly learned that the internet was not immune to the boom-and-bust cycles of more earthbound forms of economic endeavor, and it seemed the Seattle-based bookseller was going to go the way of Pets.com, the most infamous example of late 1990s cyberhubris. Streitfeld noted that one detractor of Amazon “expects the internet retailer to run out of money to adequately fund its operations later this year.”
Amazon did not run out of money — nor was it subsumed into a bigger competitor like Walmart — but it wasn’t until 2003 that it ended a year with a profit. That milestone led The Wall Street Journal to call it “one of the most powerful survivors on the internet.”
Today, the question is not whether Amazon can survive but whether we can survive without Amazon. It is in the pantheon of corporations we need more than we need most federal agencies. Just as you can search for updates on Drake’s romantic life on Bing instead of Google or post updates about your own romantic life on Ello instead of Facebook, you can buy beef jerky in bulk on Overstock instead of Amazon. But why would you? Entirely credible reasons exist to dislike Amazon: its treatment of workers, its alleged evasion of taxes, a tendency toward monopoly. But you can’t escape it. The company is lodged deep into our culture, a complex creature that engenders equally complex emotions, much like turkey bacon and the Kardashians.
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Kara Swisher, the Recode co-founder many regard as Silicon Valley’s premier journalist, has watched Bezos from the start. “He’s kind of on this kick to be a better person,” she tells me. “He realizes his power — that hehas power.” Though she is critical of some Amazon practices, she admires Bezos for his recent defense of free speech and journalism. “He’s enjoying the limelight a little bit more.”
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Amazon is “the most secret tech company,” says New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, who tells me he is frequently surprised by Bezos’s moves. The company is about as forthcoming as the Kremlin under Stalin, so that many of even the most basic questions about its operations remain unanswered, subject to amusing but unconvincing internet speculation: How many packages does it ship a day? How many Kindle e-book readers has it sold? How much of the world’s cardboard is branded with the Amazon logo?
The company’s most profitable arm is also its most discreet: Amazon Web Services, which since 2006 has offered cloud computing to everyone from the CIA to Netflix. AWS controls a third of the cloud-computing market. If it were a stand-alone company, it would be worth about $160 billion, its projected value thus exceeding IBM’s market cap. Most people, though, have no idea that AWS exists, that so much of the internet’s bedrock is a Bezos property.
Lately, though, Bezos has made an important shift in Amazon’s mission. No longer a company that merely delivers stuff, Amazon is aggressively pushing into the content-creation business. It has tried this before, with Amazon Publishing, but these new ventures are far more auspicious.
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“Is Amazon out to rule the world?” Bloomberg television wondered as Amazon was announcing its foray into streaming with its Fire TV streaming technology. One of the commentators for the segment, Shahid Khan of Mediamorph, asserted that Amazon’s objective was indeed “world domination.” He made this claim with slightly disconcerting nonchalance, as if he’d already been assured of some comfortable provincial posting in the Kingdom of Jeff. But, Khan cautioned, “you cannot dominate the world if you don’t control the living room.”