The king of Internet sales

January 6, 2012

Pity poor Jeff Bezos. He can’t get any respect from major American cultural outlets, the sort that canonize business leaders. While the late Steve Jobs’s chiseled mug stares out from the cover of Walter Isaacson’s monumental biography in the front of every major book store in the country, the networks televise hearings about Google in Washington and Brussels, and the stirring visual rhythm of David Fincher’s film “The Social Network” has made Facebook founder Mark Zuckerbergseem much more interesting than he really is, Bezos has to settle for the occasional appreciative magazine cover story from the likes of Wired and Fast Company.

No one dreams of making a film about the founding of Amazon. Privacy officials don’t call Amazon officials in for hearings. And the only recent book about Bezos and Amazon is this pale and lifeless summary of well-known events in his life and career.

In “One Click” journalist Richard L. Brandt manages to reveal just about nothing new about the founder or his company. While he mentions and summarizes some of the major conflicts and questions that Amazon has raised — the future of books, the future of bookstores, antitrust issues, overly broad business-method patents, etc. — Brandt does not fully describe just how influential Amazon has been on our daily lives or on the ways in which American companies do business.

Consider this: A strong case can be made that Amazon, more than any other company or institution, made the Web safe for commerce. Or, at least, the security innovations that Amazon installed early in its existence gave people the confidence to enter credit-card numbers and other sensitive information into Web sites. Even now, after dozens of companies, including Visa, have suffered serious security breaches that have exposed credit information, Amazon remains secure and consumer faith in the practice remains high.

And imagine if Amazon were not unfairly subsidized by a state sales tax system that exempts Internet firms without physical outlets. Amazon has to charge sales tax only in the state of Washington and exercises coercive political power whenever a state asks for its fair share of revenue. Local businesses find it hard enough to compete against Amazon’s economies of scale without having to pay sales tax on top of the price difference. This is a serious policy problem that deserves more than the two paragraphs Brandt gives it.


’One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com’ by Richard L. Brandt (Portfolio)

Think about the fact that while publishers had been trying for more than a decade to get readers to buy electronic versions of their books, Amazon managed to give people a decent platform and a wide selection of books. The resulting conflicts between Amazon and publishers, legitimately afraid of concentrated power in the market, will shape the nature of both culture and commerce in coming decades.

Or consider that Amazon has consistently resisted the pressures of institutional investors on Wall Street to maximize quarterly returns for the sake of pumping its shares’ value. Instead, Bezos has focused without fail on long-term profitability and stability, sacrificing high margins for market share that he is confident will pay off in the long term.

What passes for Internet commerce “wisdom” has mostly involved a series of clichés about being “customer-centered” and using “just-in-time” inventory-management techniques. But the sad fact is that beyond Toyota and Amazon, the list of successful companies that employ such strategies is short.

Very few companies make real money from Web commerce alone. Many firms use Web platforms successfully and creatively to interact with customers, take orders and deliver service. And it’s hard to even remember back to 1998 or so when some major companies were just starting to take the Web seriously as more than another billboard. Amazon stands out for demonstrating what can be done, and — just as important — for showing how difficult and rare real Web-commerce success is. Amazon is so big, so embedded in our daily habits, so successful at generating trustworthy customer reviews, fast delivery and no-questions-asked returns that it’s folly to think that it could serve as a useful model for any emerging firm. And Amazon now serves as more than a retail outlet. It’s an entertainment hub, providing in-the-cloud access to music and video. And it hosts the Web service data for hundreds of other firms and institutions (including, for a while, WikiLeaks).

This all goes to say that we deserve a huge, critical, sophisticated analysis of Amazon’s rise and spread. Bezos, by all accounts the proud owner of a brilliant, computer-savvy mind as well as a bold visionary and sober manager, should be a glowing subject in the hands of a writer with access and style. Brandt, alas, delivers an account with not much more depth than the Wikipedia entry on Amazon or Bezos. The endnotes don’t indicate that Brandt spent any time with Bezos or anyone close to him. Brandt seems merely to have quoted and summarized the dozens of interviews Bezos has given to others over the years.

Bezos is not secretive. He is not mysterious. And he is not eccentric. Writing about him would not take an effort comparable to what Sylvia Nasar did with mathematician John Nash, mostly because Bezos is no John Nash. While Brandt is no Nasar, he could have taken the ideas and issues more seriously. Instead, he wrote a straight narrative of major events in the life of Bezos. This is a missed opportunity.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia and the author of “The Googlization of Everything — and Why We Should Worry.”

ONE CLICK

Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com

By Richard L. Brandt

Portfolio. 214 pp. $25.95

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Entertainment