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Bezos’ Amazon: from bookstore to backbone of the internet

Bezos’ Amazon: from bookstore to backbone of the internet


A look back at the tech empire that CEO Jeff Bezos has built

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Jeff Bezos’ departure from the day-to-day responsibilities of running Amazon will be the first time the founder hasn’t driven the company as CEO in 26 years. Bezos built Amazon up from a small online bookstore to the massive conglomerate with dealings in cloud computing, groceries, physical retail, personal electronics, TV and film production, video games, and more that the company is today.

To get a sense of how much Amazon owes to Bezos, here’s a look back at Bezos’ history with the company, and an idea of the scope of what he’ll be leaving behind:

The beginning

In 1994, hedge fund vice president Jeff Bezos, 30, quit his job at D. E. Shaw & Co. to found an internet-based bookstore. It launched in July 1995; the first book sold was Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. Within two months, the company sold books in all 50 states but was viewed as a bit player in the publishing industry compared to heavyweights like Barnes and Noble or Borders. 

In July 1996, Amazon introduced its Affiliate Program, which rewards other websites for referring traffic to Amazon books. The program continues to this day and is a key part of Amazon’s e-commerce profile. 

On May 15th, 1997, Amazon held its IPO, trading under AMZN at $18 a share. (At publication, Amazon’s stock trades for $3,380 a share.) Amazon was still losing money at the time, despite an 800 percent increase in revenue that year. But Bezos told shareholders that year the company was focused on long-term investments, not just short-term profit. Later that year, Amazon also introduced its patented “1-Click” shopping button, which allows customers to buy books from Amazon and have them shipped with a single press of a button.

Amazon was focused on long-term investments, not just short-term profit

In 1998, Amazon bought the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) for approximately $55 million, in the company’s first major acquisition. It also expanded its storefront for the first time:  Amazon now sold CDs and DVDs, too. The company would continue to grow, adding new product categories over the following months and years. 

In 2000, Amazon opened the Amazon Marketplace, which let others sell products on its site. People could sell used books, DVDs, and other products alongside Amazon’s own sales pages. 

In 2003, Amazon, for the first time in its history, turned an annual profit of $75 million.

Prime time

In 2005, Amazon Prime was introduced, offering customers free two-day shipping within the continental US for $79 per year. This was Amazon’s first foray into subscription services, and it would become one of the company’s best-known products. Prime subscriptions cemented Amazon’s place in the retail marketplace — with two-day shipping, it was now almost more convenient to order a product or book from Amazon than it was to go to a retail store

In 2006, Amazon debuted one of its most significant products: the web server product that would come to be known as Amazon Web Services, or AWS. AWS was a commercial product that would provide the backbone for companies to run their own internet businesses from the cloud. The launch also gave Amazon years of a head start on its eventual competitors, like Microsoft Azure (which was first available in 2010) and Google Cloud (in 2008). 

In September 2007, Amazon made its first entry into digital music with Amazon MP3, an online music store. Amazon’s storefront sold MP3 files without digital-rights management copy protection, and it was the first DRM-free music store to offer music from all four major labels. 

The original Amazon Kindle
The original Amazon Kindle
Image: Amazon

In November 2007, Amazon’s first major hardware product went on sale: the Amazon Kindle e-reader. While E Ink-based e-readers had been popular overseas for some time, the Kindle — combined with Amazon’s Kindle Store for buying ebooks, usually for a significant discount over their ink-and-paper counterparts — helped popularize the concept in the US for the first time. The company that started selling physical books on a digital site now sold physical devices to read digital books. 

In August 2007, Amazon Fresh, a local grocery delivery service, opened in Seattle as an invite-only service. The service eventually expanded to other cities six years later in 2013. The extended time it took Amazon to roll out Fresh highlighted the difficulties of selling fresh groceries at scale through the internet, a problem the company continued to grapple with in subsequent years. 

In September 2009, Amazon made its biggest foray into creating its own line of products with AmazonBasics, its in-house label for “essential accessories.” The label is controversial to some Amazon sellers, who alleged that Amazon shepherds customers to buy AmazonBasics products over their own. There are also accusations that Amazon copies third-party products to sell under the AmazonBasics brand.

In July 2009, Amazon bought Zappos for $928 million. In June 2010, Amazon bought Woot for $110 million. The two acquisitions further expanded Amazon’s control over internet commerce. 

In February 2011, Amazon expanded its digital video service into Amazon Prime Instant Video, establishing Amazon’s first foothold into the streaming marketplace. In addition to purchasing movies and TV shows, Amazon Prime members could stream content from a library of over 5,000 shows and movies.

In March 2011, Amazon announced the Amazon Appstore for Android. While the Google Play Store remained the primary storefront for Android, the Amazon Appstore offered developers a new venue to sell applications for mobile devices. Later that year, the company launched its first Android tablet: the $199 Kindle Fire Tablet, the first in a series of budget Android tablets from Amazon.

In April 2012, a report from DeepField Networks concluded that 1 percent of all consumer internet traffic interacts with AWS servers, with a third of internet users using Amazon servers at least once a day. Notable companies relying on Amazon’s servers by this point include Netflix, Dropbox, Instagram, Pinterest, and Zynga. 

In April 2013, Amazon released its first original streaming content: 14 original series pilots produced by Amazon Studios, its content production group. The shows are, for the most part, bad

On December 1st, 2013, Bezos formally announced Amazon Prime Air on 60 Minutes. Prime Air was a wildly ambitious program that would use miniature delivery drones to bring packages to customers’ doorsteps in under a half an hour. The program has yet to debut commercially. It’s one of the largest unfinished products of Bezos’ tenure. 

On Fire

2014 was Amazon’s most significant year for consumer hardware. The company kicked things off in April with the Fire TV, a $99 set-top box designed to compete with Apple and Roku.

After years of rumors, in July 2014, Amazon released its biggest hardware bet yet: the Amazon Fire Phone, an Android-based smartphone that also served as a gateway to all of Amazon’s various content and shopping services. A key selling point was the unique camera array, which promised a head-tracking feature, along with “Firefly,” a camera-based shopping app for scanning and buying items off of Amazon. 

In August 2014, Amazon announced it was buying the popular video game streaming website Twitch for $970 million. 

Amazon Echo and books

On November 6th, 2014, Amazon released the Echo, a speaker equipped with microphones, so that users can talk to an integrated digital assistant called Alexa. Originally, the Echo was limited to Prime members, but Amazon eventually opened up sales to everyone on June 23rd, 2015. The Echo speaker was a huge success for Amazon, and it helped launch the entire smart speaker product category. Today, the Echo is just one of many smart speakers available, with Google Assistant and Apple’s HomePod products all competing for a spot in customers’ living rooms. 

Amazon started off 2015 with a Golden Globe award for best TV comedy or musical for Prime original series Transparent, the first major award for the company’s original content. Amazon had moved from a pile of unpopular pilots to the company behind one of TV’s best shows in just two years. 

To celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary, Amazon held its first “Prime Day” event on July 15th, 2015: a combination warehouse clearance sale and Black Friday-style deal event. It’s been held annually since and is now one of Amazon’s highest-volume shopping days of the year. 

In September 2015, Amazon announced that it was discontinuing the Fire Phone, just over a year after it was introduced. The product was poorly received by both customers and reviewers, and it remains one of Amazon’s most notable product failures to date. Amazon hasn’t made another smartphone since.

In November 2015, after starting life as a digital bookstore, Amazon opened its first physical bookshop in Seattle, called Amazon Books. Since then, the company has continued to expand Amazon Books stores in other locations across the US.

In October 2016, Amazon Music expanded with Amazon Music Unlimited, a full-fledged streaming service that was designed to compete with products like Spotify and Apple Music. At launch, it cost $7.99 per month for Prime subscribers, or just $3.99 per month for Echo owners. 

In December 2016, the first Amazon Go convenience store opened in Seattle. The store used cameras and sensors to track what items customers take off of shelves and out of the store, charging them automatically. No cashiers or checkout lines needed. 

At the 87th Academy Awards in 2017, Amazon became the first streaming service to win an Oscar, taking home Best Actor and Best Screenplay for Manchester By The Sea (which was also nominated for Best Picture that year). The company also won best foreign language film for The Salesman

The whole picture

In June 2017, Amazon made its biggest purchase ever: the landmark $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods. The upscale food chain wasn’t rebranded as an Amazon product. Rather, Amazon primarily integrated Whole Foods into its local grocery delivery services like Prime Now, vastly expanding its inventory to bring customers fresh foods directly from stores. Prime customers could also expect special deals.

In September 2017, Amazon announced plans for a second headquarters. As part of the announcement, the company asked cities across North America to pitch it on where it should set up shop next. For the next year, cities scrambled to offer Amazon a series of perks, tax breaks, and subsidiaries to host the headquarters. After all that, in November 2018, Amazon announced its “HQ2” headquarters would be split between Long Island City in NYC and the Crystal City area of Arlington, Virginia.

In February 2018, Amazon bought home security company Ring for more than $1 billion. The acquisition didn’t just give Amazon a commanding position in the home security market — it gave the company a key outlet to expand its smart home gadgets built around its Alexa assistant. Since the Amazon acquisition, Ring has been criticized by privacy advocates for its close ties with law enforcement agencies that allow police or fire departments to request video footage from the company’s cameras. 

Amazon’s market cap briefly crossed $1 trillion for the first time in September 2018; Amazon was just the third company in history to achieve that high a valuation. 

In April 2019, Amazon announced plans to further improve its Prime delivery promise: instead of offering two-day shipping for products, Amazon would now be offering one-day shipping for Prime members. The investment, while costly, paid off for Amazon in the long term with increases in both Prime subscriptions and overall sales. 

Amazon canceled its plans for a New York City headquarters in February 2019, following backlash from residents and local politicians. They objected to Amazon’s promise that the new headquarters would result in an influx of new jobs; locals were concerned that the new Amazon HQ would bring a rush of outsider tech workers who would in turn push out existing residents and drive up living costs in Queens. 

On May 5th, 2020 Amazon released its years-in-the-making video game, Crucible. The game was available for just over a month before it was pulled as the game’s development team went back to rework the title. Crucible was then canceled entirely in October. It was a particularly notable moment for Amazon’s gaming ambitions. Despite years of investment into Amazon Game Studios and ownership of Twitch, the largest social gaming space on the internet, Amazon had once again failed to make any real impact as a video game creator.

In August 2020, Amazon launched the first “Amazon Fresh” branded grocery store in Woodland Hills, California. The store was notably not a Whole Foods store but was designed as a cheaper alternative that more closely ties into Amazon’s services and products. 

Two devices streaming games from Amazon Luna

At the end of September 2020, Amazon announced Luna. Like Google’s Stadia, Luna was a game streaming service that leveraged the company’s cloud backend to stream video games to devices over the internet. Luna was just a platform for playing third-party titles, though, with not much to offer compared to traditional game consoles beyond the questionable convenience of outsourcing the actual processing to a cloud server. 

And on February 2nd, 2021: Bezos announced that he’ll be stepping down as Amazon’s CEO later in 2021, marking the end of his tenure at the head of the company.