If there’s a sentence that sums up Amazon, the weirdest major technology company in America, it’s one that came from its own CEO, Jeff Bezos, speaking at the Aspen Institute’s 2009 Annual Awards Dinner in New York City: “Invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood.”
In other words: if you don’t yet get what I’m trying to build, keep waiting.
Four years later, Amazon’s annual revenue and stock price have both nearly tripled, but for many onlookers, the long wait for understanding continues. Bezos’s company has grown from its humble Seattle beginnings to become not only the largest bookstore in the history of the world, but also the world’s largest online retailer, the largest Web-hosting company in the world, the most serious competitor to Netflix in streaming video, the fourth-most-popular tablet maker, and a sprawling international network of fulfillment centers for merchants around the world. It is now rumored to be close to launching its own smartphone and television set-top box. The every-bookstore has become the store for everything, with the global ambition to become the store for everywhere.
Seriously: What is Amazon? A retail company? A media company? A logistics machine? The mystery of its strategy is deepened by two factors. First is the company’s communications department, which famously excels at not communicating. (Three requests to speak with Amazon officials for this article were delayed and, inevitably, declined.) This moves discussions of the company’s intentions into the realm of mind reading, often attempted by the research departments of investment banks, where even bullish analysts aren’t really sure what Bezos is up to. “It’s very difficult to define what Amazon is,” says R. J. Hottovy, an analyst with Morningstar, who nonetheless champions the company’s future.