What makes him powerful: Seventeen years after Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.com, the e-commerce pioneer ranks as America's largest digital retailer.
Although Amazon remains a popular destination for the books, videos and CDs that first launched the company to prominence, in recent years Bezos has shifted its business away from physical goods into digital media sales, a trend typified by the growth of its Amazon MP3 music storefront and its pacesetting Kindle e-reader platform, which now leads the worldwide e-reader market with a 51.7 percent share, far ahead of Barnes & Noble's Nook at 21.2 percent.
Mobile plays a flourishing role in Amazon's digital ambitions as well--in fact, over the past 12 months Amazon has emerged as a full-fledged mobile juggernaut on a collision course with archrival Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). Not only has Bezos launched Amazon's own app marketplace and a cloud-based music streaming platform, he's rolling out the Kindle Fire, a bargain-priced Android-powered tablet that ties all of its multimedia initiatives together--and poses the most serious threat to Apple's iPad to date.
Amazon emerged as a true mobile powerbroker in March, when it opened its Amazon Appstore for Android. Launching with about 3,800 applications in all, Amazon Appstore for Android promises a user experience rooted in the company's e-commerce and marketing expertise, highlighted by a series of automated marketing features extending its signature product recommendation engine to mobile software merchandising, as well as a Bestsellers section to further improve consumer discovery. Unlike Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) own Android Market, Amazon Appstore for Android tests all apps before introducing them in the store, guaranteeing a positive user experience and protecting consumers from potentially harmful situations. Also noteworthy: Amazon's Free App of the Day promotion, which offers a popular premium app as a free download for a 24-hour period.
Days after unveiling Amazon Appstore for Android, Amazon struck again, this time introducing Amazon Cloud Drive, a new solution enabling consumers to securely store music in the cloud for anytime/anywhere access via Android and iOS smartphones and tablets as well as PCs and Macs.
But Amazon's most auspicious threat to the mobile status quo is the Kindle Fire, announced in late September. The Wi-Fi only tablet is perhaps most notable for its price: $199--more than half off the price of Apple's cheapest iPad, making it clearer than ever that while Apple relies on digital content to sell its hardware products, Amazon is depending on affordable Kindle devices to drive content sales. The Kindle Fire offers consumers access to the Amazon Appstore for Android, the Kindle e-book catalog and the Amazon Instant Video and Amazon MP3 digital storefronts--it also touts a customized browser, Amazon Silk, that interfaces with Amazon's EC2 cloud server to accelerate the data consumption experience. It even supports Adobe Flash, a runtime essentially verboten on Apple iOS products.
Analysts are expecting big things from the seven-inch Kindle Fire. Forrester Research anticipates Amazon will sell approximately 3 million units by the end of 2011, even though the Kindle Fire doesn't start shipping until Nov. 15, considered late in the context of the holiday shopping season.
Rumors indicate Amazon isn't stopping there. Insiders say Bezos and his team are in serious talks with Hewlett-Packard to acquire the webOS mobile operating system, which HP absorbed with its $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm in April 2010 and scrapped this past August. The Kindle Fire runs a heavily customized version of the Android operating system--dealing for webOS would enable Amazon to build a mobile platform to its exact specifications, further differentiating its future tablet efforts from competing Android-based products.
It's unknown whether Amazon will pull the trigger on webOS, but the possibilities are fascinating--for example, it could produce its own bargain-priced smartphone to take on the iPhone, preloading the device with all of its media and m-commerce applications while selling handsets and service packages via its website. No doubt Bezos has much larger ambitions in mind as well. He's the wild card, the wireless industry giant playing the same game as Apple and Google but approaching it from his own unique perspective--which is why the next chapter of Bezos' illustrious entrepreneurial career could be the most interesting and most disruptive to date. --Jason