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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
In 2013, Amazon secured a US$600 million contract with the CIA, which poses a potential conflict of interest involving the Bezos-owned The Washington Post and his newspaper's coverage of the CIA. Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said, "It's a serious potential conflict of interest for a major newspaper like The Washington Post to have a contractual relationship with the government and the most secret part of the government." This was later followed by a US$10 billion contract with the Department of Defence.
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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.
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.
Even so, the first infomercial of the same type we see on TV today, aired in 1982 and was for a hair growth supplement called “New Generation” which was marketed by entrepreneur Robert E. Murphy Jr. It was such a success that other companies quickly began following suit and purchasing program-length commercial air time. At this time infomercials used to commonly be shown during late night/early morning hours, although stations discovered success showing them at other times when they learned that the majority of purchases were made in the morning, during the day, and around primetime.