How far can Amazon go?
It has upended industries and changed the way the world shops. But it should beware of abusing its power
WHEN Jeff Bezos left his job in finance and moved to Seattle 20 years ago to start a new firm, he rented a house with a garage, as that was where the likes of Apple and HP had been born. Although he started selling books, he called the firm Amazon because a giant river reflected the scale of his ambitions. This week the world's leading e-commerce company unveiled its first smartphone, which Amazon treats less as a communication device than an ingenious shopping platform and a way of gathering data about people in order to make even more accurate product recommendations.
The smartphone is typical of Amazon. There is the remorseless expansion: if you can deliver books and washing machines, why not a phone? There is the ability to switch between the real world of atoms and the digital world of bits: Amazon has one of the world's most impressive physical distribution systems, even as it has branched out into cloud computing, e-books, video streaming and music downloads (see article). There is the drive for market share over immediate profits. And there is the slightly creepy feeling that Amazon knows too much about its users already. So far its insatiable appetite has helped consumers; but as it grows in size and power the danger is that it will go too far.
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For the moment, admiration should count for more than fear. Many things the world now takes for granted were introduced by Mr Bezos. Typing your credit-card number into a web browser was once considered a sign of insanity until Amazon showed how easy and safe buying things online could be. Once people had bought a book, they tried other things. Today the global e-commerce market is worth $1.5 trillion.
Amazon also fostered the emergence of customer reviews. From the start it let buyers rate and review books. This still irks some professional critics, and some of the most fulsome five-star ratings may be from spouses of authors. But overall they provide valuable advice to buyers. Today everything from apps to hotels to hoses can be rated online, and retail websites seem incomplete without customer reviews.
Then there are the industries it has upended. Books came first. Amazon has changed publishing twice—first by making any book in the world quickly available and then by making e-books mainstream. Before Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, e-readers were fiddly gadgets that few people used. The Kindle was easy to use, worked anywhere and allowed instant delivery straight to the device (rather than via a PC). Amazon also pioneered a new model for cloud computing. In 2006 it began renting out computer capacity by the hour. The option to rent rather than buy computing power greatly reduced the cost and complexity of launching a new company. Amazon's cloud services have since been used by startups including Netflix, Instagram, Pinterest, Spotify and Airbnb, and have spawned a whole new industry.
此外，亚马逊还颠覆了许多行业，其中图书首当其冲。亚马逊已经改变了两次出版行业。一次是通过网络书店方便人们购书，第二次则是通过电子书方便人们随时阅读。在2007，亚马逊推出Kindle之前，电子书只是一种小众设备。因为Kindle非常易用，可以随时随地使用，而且可以在不借助PC的情况下，能够立即将图书下载到设备中。亚马逊还推出了一种全新的云计算方法。在2006年便开始按照时间出租计算资源。这种以租代购的方式大大降低了公司的创业成本及复杂度。亚马逊的云端服务还被广泛的应用于像Netflix，Instagram，Pinterest, Spotify 和Airbnb这样的新创公司，甚至还催生出了一些全新的产业。
Apple may be better known as an innovator, but Amazon may have had just as big an impact on the workings of the digital world. And it keeps on experimenting. Unconstrained by a self-image as a company that does a particular thing, Amazon has dabbled in areas from internet search to robotics to film and television development.
Indeed, if your glasses are particularly rose-tinted, Amazon seems to have put the “long term” back into Anglo-Saxon capitalism. At a time when Wall Street is obsessed by quarterly results and share buy-backs, Amazon has made it clear to shareholders that, given a choice between making a profit and investing in new areas, it will always choose the latter. While other technology giants sit on record piles of cash, Amazon still has plenty of ideas about where to invest and innovate. And investors seem happy with it: Amazon's price-to-earnings ratio has exceeded 3,500 at times. It aligns top executives' interests with those of shareholders by paying them largely in stock: its highest salary is $175,000 a year.
Giant selection, tiny tax bill
The problem is that many of these virtues come with accompanying vices. Amazon stands accused of unfair competition—of being a lousy employer, dodging tax and bullying its rivals. Amazon says median pay in its American warehouses is 30% higher than in large retail stores. On tax, the picture is a little more nuanced. The main reason its tax bill is so low is that it does not make profits, but Amazon has also been extremely aggressive in (legally) booking profits to low-tax countries. Having campaigned against sales taxes for online transactions for many years, it has lately changed its tune, and now collects sales taxes in a growing number of American states.
As for bullying competitors, most of this is just the savage magic of capitalism. Amazon has crushed local bookshops but only in the same way that Tesco and Walmart crushed grocers—by providing a cheaper, easier way to shop. However antitrust regulators must ensure it is not abusing its market power, on a case-by-case basis. For instance, Amazon's current dispute with Hachette, a large publisher, may largely be a standard tussle between retailer and supplier. But when the dominant seller of e-books removes pre-order buttons and makes delivery times longer for Hachette books, that hardly squares with Mr Bezos's professed emphasis on customer service.
Perhaps the biggest concern about Amazon is, paradoxically, a consequence of its long-term vision. It is hard to compete with a company whose shareholders do not expect it to make a profit. Its vast scale and willingness to operate at zero or negative margins represent high barriers to entry for potential competitors. This cannot go on for ever. The concern is that Amazon is merely waiting for rivals to go out of business before raising its prices. If that happens, regulators should jump on it hard. That would provide an opportunity for another firm—China's Alibaba, say—and some investors might rue the Amazon earnings that never came. But consumers would once again win, as indeed they generally have done as Mr Bezos's scrappy startup has expanded its reach into so many aspects of everyday life