In the course of a single generation, Amazon has grown from fledgling online bookseller to one of the most valuable and powerful corporations in modern history. The empire of CEO Jeff Bezos has grown so vast that critics, overseas regulators, and Washington politicians are all now wondering whether the company has become an unstoppable force, and what, if anything, is capable of reining in its reach. A recent spat with Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) resulted in a minimum wage hike for tens of thousands of employees, but Amazon still operates largely without any meaningful checks on its power even as it aggressively expands into physical retail, the smart home, and warehouse and aviation robotics.
Yet despite having a hand in so many different industries, consumers largely trust Amazon with everything from their personal information and buying habits to the literal conversations they have in their own homes. According to a study The Verge conducted in partnership with consulting firm Reticle Research last year, Amazon is the most-liked and trusted technology brand by a wide margin. One likely explanation there is that the company has a strong relationship with its customers, thanks in part to its zealous commitment to low prices and a seemingly never-ending quest to make modern life more convenient.
Given that trust, Amazon has only escalated up its expansion into more industries and markets over the years, with that expansion accelerating since the introduction of the first Amazon Echo speaker with Alexa a little less than four years ago. To fully comprehend just how big the company has grown over the last 25 years, we’ve put together a guide on every major sector, product category, and market Amazon has entered into either by developing its own products or services, or by acquiring an existing provider with an established position.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a comprehensive look back at Amazon without starting first with books — of the paper variety.
Amazon was founded in 1994 around Bezos’ desire to start an internet-based business, with the goal of selling items online emerging as an early and obvious inroad into the dot-com boom. A former Wall Street worker with electrical engineering and computer science degrees, Bezos zeroed in on books as a viable initial product category for his online store due to the universality of literature, the existing stock of print books, and the relatively low price of each unit. Bezos briefly considered naming his company Relentless.com — an early sign of the man’s tenacious business mindset — but friends and family suggested it was too malevolent sounding. Relentless.com, which Bezos bought roughly 24 years ago, still redirects to Amazon.com. The company now controls almost half of all print book sales in the US.
Ebooks, e-readers, and digital publishing
While Amazon grew in the ‘90s largely thanks to its growing share of the print book market and its dominance of online book sales, it was its early investments in ebooks and e-readers that turned it into a digital publishing and book-selling powerhouse. Amazon began work on its first Kindle e-reader starting in 2004 under codename Fiona, with its internal Lab126 hardware division leading the product development process. The first device was released in November of 2007 and sold for $399. Amazon has since released numerous iterations of the Kindle, and it now dominates the e-reader market after edging out competing products from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and others.
Shortly after the first Kindle launched, Amazon premiered its Kindle Direct Publishing platform to let authors self-publish and sell books on Amazon. Two years later, the company launched its own suite of professional imprints called Amazon Publishing. Amazon now oversees tens of millions of self-published works on its platform and nearly two dozen imprints. In 2017, Amazon had more than 83 percent of all US ebook sales.
Amazon Prime, Prime Video, and original content
Amazon first entered the media industry as a major online retailer in the late ‘90s. The company began by selling CDs and DVDs to a burgeoning market of online shoppers who began turning to the internet for music and movies, before the technical feasibility of streaming and the advent of the iPod. But it wasn’t until 2005, with the initial launch of Amazon Prime, that the company began laying the ground work for a future digital media ecosystem that integrated directly into its online store.
Prime started as a two-day shipping membership for devoted Amazon shoppers, and it didn’t add any additional benefits until 2011. However, since then, Prime has grown into a subscription service with more than 100 million paid users worldwide, while the service itself has evolved to include additional perks over the years, including a Prime credit card now with 5 percent cash back. (Amazon also operates Amazon Pay for purchasing online goods elsewhere with your Amazon account, and the Amazon Cash service for translating cash into store credit using a barcode, although neither are restricted to Prime users.)
Amazon Prime Video has grown into a veritable Netflix competitor
Perhaps the most prominent Prime perk, however, is access to Amazon Prime Video. The video on-demand service started in 2006 as Amazon Unboxed, but was rebranded in 2008 and integrated into the Prime service three years later, where it became a huge selling point for Amazon’s annual subscription. It now boasts thousands of free TV shows, films, and games, all accessible on pretty much every screen available.
Amazon Studios, which was founded in 2010 to compete with Hulu and Netflix in original programming, has become a powerhouse in Hollywood, taking home both Emmys and Oscars and growing into a staple of the modern entertainment diet of many Americans. Rounding out its position in digital media is the FireTV streaming device, which Amazon first launched in 2014 to compete with Apple, Roku, and other set-top box makers. The product has since been shrunk into a skinny HDMI stick — Amazon still sells the box and now also a small, square-shaped Fire TV Cube — and it remains one of the best-selling consumer electronics devices on Amazon.com.
Bezos and those he’s hired over the years have been prescient about a vast number of shifts in how people spend money, buy products, and use the internet. But none of their predictions may have panned out quite as lucratively as Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing division that loans server space and other computing resources at massive profit margins.
In addition to pulling in hosting revenue from companies like Disney, Netflix, and Spotify, AWS is also the backbone of the company’s own internal infrastructure and the underlying foundation for its Alexa digital voice assistant. It is a major competitor to Microsoft and its Azure platform, as well as Google’s cloud computing division and the cloud businesses of IBM and Oracle. AWS is so important to the integrity of the apps and websites we use that a rare S3 outage, which is the web hosting pillar of AWS, took out large swaths of the internet.
AWS started way back in 2000 as a way to help other retailers manage e-commerce operations, but it soon expanded into much more when key project members managed to convince Bezos that improving and evolving Amazon’s own infrastructure may hold the key to a new business model. In 2006, the product as we know it today launched into public availability and proved to be a pioneer for the entire cloud computing industry, offering cloud storage, hosting, and a suite of other tools for managing entire digital infrastructures in remote data centers. The division now pulls in roughly $6 billion every quarter and continues to grow at breakneck pace. It earned $17.5 billion in revenue in all of 2017 and regularly outperforms the company’s entire North American retail division in terms of profit.
Smart speakers and AI
Amazon is known today not just as the everything store, but as the creator of Alexa, one of the most pervasive digital voice assistants on the market today. As an extension of Alexa, Amazon has become more than just a seller of other people’s products. It’s now a hardware maker (Fire Phone aside), having embarked on its boldest product play since the original Kindle when it decided to develop its own line of smart speakers to house its artificial intelligence software. Once again, the division responsible for this piece of hardware was Lab126, Amazon’s hardware arm that gave it the tools to dominate the e-reader market nearly a decade prior.
The first Echo came out in late 2014 as a Prime member exclusive, but in the four short years since, Amazon has developed dozens of different smart home products that revolve around the speaker and voice assistant format. Today, thousands of products integrate with the company’s Alexa platform to make use of its voice search and query capabilities. Just as it once foresaw e-commerce, streaming, and cloud computing as the future of the internet, Amazon saw AI as not just something that could live within the smartphone — as Apple established with Siri and Google with its Assistant — but also in the home.
The Echo line and its Alexa assistant are Amazon’s avenues into our physical lives and our digital behaviors. With the data it collects, Amazon is able to better understand how we shop and how we want the devices of the future to listen, respond, and problem solve as if they were other human beings. Amazon has stiff competition in this space, primarily from Apple and Google, but its early investments in smart speakers and AI have helped Amazon overcome its absence in the key consumer markets like mobile, search, and social networks. As a result, Amazon has made early and tangible inroads in developing an ecosystem that customers will find increasingly hard to abandon down the line.
Twitch and live streaming
Amazon was never going to be able to compete with Google’s YouTube in user-uploaded video content, and it didn’t have the social infrastructure of Facebook to become a destination where people discuss their lives and share videos from around the web. But what Amazon did have was the resources to purchase a company that was poised to outrun both Facebook and YouTube to a new type of business: live-streaming, in particular video games live-streaming. The pioneer of that market was Twitch, which Amazon purchased in 2014 for just shy of $1 billion.
Twitch started in 2007 as a 24-hour live stream of co-founder Justin Kan’s life (he coined the term “lifecasting”) called Justin.tv, but it became very clear very quickly that live gaming content was more popular than pretty much anything else. In 2011, Twitch spun off gaming-centric channels as Twitch.tv, and it grew exponentially as online games and the technology to broadcast them live on the internet became more widespread and popular.
Amazon, seeing the obvious opportunity here, reportedly outbid none other than Google to become Twitch’s parent company three years later, with the AWS infrastructure a big part of why Twitch CEO Emmett Shear decided to take the deal. Now, four years later, Twitch has outlasted both YouTube and Facebook’s attempts to snatch away its market share and, given the popularity of titles like Epic Games’ Fortnite, has become an even more integral fixture of modern online life and youth culture. Amazon has more recently integrated Twitch into its Prime subscription, giving subscribers free games and complementary channel subscriptions.
Groceries, household supplies, and ever-faster shipping
While Amazon was expanding into streaming video, hardware, and cloud computing, it simultaneously maintained an aggressive push into even faster shipping and all new retail formats. The company started its same-day shipping initiative, Prime Now, in New York City in 2014, and it’s since expanded it to dozens of cities around the world. Around the same time, Amazon began a program called AmazonFresh to stock and ship groceries — including vegetables and refrigerated and freezer products — that it used as a way to stay competitive with traditional big-box retailers like Walmart and Target and Uber-like logistics newcomers like Instacart. The company now sells its own line of meal kits through Fresh to rival ready-to-cook options from companies like Blue Apron and Plated.
With Prime Pantry, which also launched in 2014, Amazon honed its focus on competing with the Walmarts and pharmacies of the world by giving Prime subscribers an easy way to fill one giant box with household supplies and other nonperishable goods. In 2015, Amazon launched a home services arm for everything from house cleanings and oil changes to furniture assembly and theater installation.
Amazon’s move into offline retail has started a war with Walmart
That same year, the company launched Dash buttons for instant reordering of products like laundry detergent, and it’s more recently been investing in new services that let package-carrying couriers unlock the truck of your car and even your front door. Most recently, Amazon has signaled an intention to disrupt health care by purchasing online pharmaceutical startup PillPack. All of this has helped Amazon grow its North American retail operation at an unbelievable pace; annual sales for the division more than doubled from $50.8 billion in 2014 to $106.1 billion last year.
Yet the more monumental retail push occurred last summer, when Amazon purchased grocery chain Whole Foods for $13.7 billion and proved, yet again, that Bezos is willing and able to buy his way into a new market when it’s unfavorable to start from scratch. Amazon now uses Whole Foods’ grocery pick-up and delivery perks and in-store discounts as a way to reward its Prime subscribers. It’s also using its massive resources to lower Whole Foods prices, making it more competitive with Kroger, Target, and Walmart. In response, Walmart has begun investing heavily in e-commerce and grocery delivery to protect its turf from Amazon, setting the stage for an unprecedented retail war.
AmazonBasics and private label products
Amazon, with its unfettered access to troves of valuable consumer and seller data, came upon a rather interesting business model around 2009, when it launched a private label division under the name AmazonBasics. It started first with the items the company noticed people most often purchased without thinking too hard about the brand name, like batteries and HDMI cables. But as The New York Times reported this past summer, this proved to be a way to fast track a fledgling product category into a massive money-making top seller — AmazonBasics’ AA batteries now outsell Duracell and Energizer on Amazon.com after just a few years.
Amazon now has more than 100 private label brands, some without the name Amazon even remotely attached, for product categories like clothing, dog food, and furniture. Yet AmazonBasics, and the Amazon Essentials clothing brand, remain the company’s biggest weapons in its war against offline retail. Just as Walmart, Target, and other stores launched their own private label brands for virtually every product imaginable, the company has done the same. (In 2015, it also launched an official Etsy competitor in the form of Amazon Homemade.)
The difference is that Amazon has data to prove what’s popular and easy to sell, and free shipping to get people to buy it online instead of in the store. (That’s gotten the attention of the European Commission, which is looking into whether Amazon is harming competition by using data from its sellers to develop its own products.) You can now buy Amazon-produced electric kettles, toasters, office chairs, knife sets, neoprene dumbbells, comforters, suitcases — name a product you’d find in a Walmart, and it’s probably already made and sold under the AmazonBasics name. Earlier this month, the company started selling its own mattress, striking fear in the direct-to-consumer mattress startup market dominated by Casper and Tuft & Needle.
Smart home appliances
Amazon hasn’t been content stopping with smart speakers and just standard old appliances under its AmazonBasics brand. In its quest to put Alexa everywhere, the company now sells a dizzying number of smart home devices that go well beyond its core speaker and set-top box beginnings. First there was the Echo Dot, to help bring Alexa to analog speaker systems and get the voice assistant into more rooms of the home. Then there was the Echo Look, for AI-assisted outfit recommendations, and the Echo Show, which contained a display and camera for video chatting and was designed to be a hands-free screen for the kitchen.
From there, the Echo line exploded. In the fall of 2017, Amazon launched an Alexa-powered alarm clock called the Echo Spot and a smart home hub in the form of the Echo Plus. Just last month, Amazon held another hardware event where it further amplified its assault on the traditional appliance industry and the smart home market simultaneously.
In one brief keynote, the company announced a car infotainment device, yet more updates to the standard Echo speaker and Dot line, a subwoofer, a set of stereo amplifiers, a Chromecast Audio competitor, a smart wall clock, a smart plug, and a super-powered Slingbox-style device for over-the-air programming. Oh and lest we forget, Amazon also made a microwave with Alexa built in, using it as a model to start competing with companies like KitchenAid, LG, and Samsung by making Alexa the go-to voice assistant and AI hub for household appliances. In addition to building its own devices, the company also invests in startups through its Alexa Fund to scout new and promising entrants and product categories, and it’s acquired quite a few of those companies — including security cam startup Blink and smart doorbell maker Ring — to ensure it has every corner of the smart home covered.
Bookstores and experimental retail
Amazon’s transformation into the world’s more pervasive retail operation wouldn’t be complete unless the company began a seemingly counterintuitive push from online to offline. Starting with its brick-and-mortar bookstores in 2015 — first in Seattle and now in Chicago and New York City — Amazon established its intent to compete on all fronts with its retail competitors.
In late 2016, the company launched its first experimental Go store, which replaces cashiers with a computer vision system that automatically detects when you take products off the shelf and checks you out as you leave the store. Go now has two locations in Chicago, three in Seattle, and one that just opened in San Francisco today, with more planned in California and New York City over the course of the next year. Bloomberg reported in September that Amazon may open as many as 3,000 Go locations by 2021, with the goal of competing with stores like CVS and 7-Eleven, as well as fast casual and made-to-go meal establishments. The company is also now experimenting with brick-and-mortar stores that sell only four-star rated products from Amazon.com, starting with a location in New York City.
Logistics, delivery drones, and warehouse robotics
Amazon would be nothing without its infrastructure. The physical and digital foundations of its business and the logistics operation to support it have allowed Amazon to grow faster than almost any other company in modern history, and in those areas you’ll find the company’s most forward-looking projects and costly endeavors.
On the logistics side, Amazon has for years been building out a network of delivery workers, fulfillment centers, trucks, cargo planes, and freighters to move products from manufacturers to customers at speeds once thought impossible. The company is now facilitating sea freight shipments, leasing Boeing cargo planes, building a $1.5 billion air cargo hub in Kentucky, and expanding its own UPS and FedEx competitor called Shipping with Amazon, or SWA. All of this is an effort to establish a global logistics network that no one company will be able to compete with.
When it comes to last-mile delivery, Amazon has publicly disclosed its work on drones and the Prime Air program to use those unmanned aerial vehicles to drop packages on our doorstep. The project has been in the works since 2013, and it’s hit a few snags as the regulation of US commercial drone operations has been a slow and often painful process for companies trying to get operations off the ground.
Amazon is building a global logistics operation involving drones, planes, and freighters
But Amazon has been testing its drones for years and performed the first public demo delivery in the US last year. Meanwhile, it continues to submit outlandish patents about its vision for the future of drone delivery, including one for a self-destructing drone that disassembles itself in an emergency and a delivery drone mothership of sorts that would act as a city’s central hub for package-carrying UAVs.
Although the company did raise the minimum wage for all of its employees earlier this month, it’s plowing ahead on warehouse robotics and automation in a way that could fundamentally reshape how its lowest-paid employees perform work — and how many of those employees it needs to retain. Amazon now uses more than 100,000 robots in warehouses around the world to help move and organize products, according to The New York Times, and it also sponsors an annual robotics competition to help spur innovation in AI that could result in more dexterous and intelligent robots capable of performing complex physical tasks.
As it stands today, Amazon employs more than half a million people, more so than any other technology company in the country and second only to Walmart in the US. But the eventual result of its investments in robotics and AI is that technology’s biggest and fast-growing workforce could see that growth start to slow and, perhaps years down the line, even shrink as robots tackle ever more complicated tasks. In the process, the company may develop robots for use outside its fulfillment centers. Amazon has already changed how we shop and, by extension, how we live our lives. Its next big step could be changing how we work.