Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Amazon is one of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations on the planet. But just how powerful is it, and how exactly did it get there in just under two and a half decades? To fully understand the company’s trajectory, and what it’ll mean for future antitrust regulation, I recommend reading former New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg’s new profile of the company, published in The New Yorker this morning. It’s aptly titled “Is Amazon Unstoppable?”
It features an exhaustive collection of intricate details about the company’s operations and history, combined with smart analysis and some telling on-the-record and anonymous quotes from current and former executives. But primarily, Duhigg explores the scary notion that Amazon may be impossible to rein in, whether through regulation or standard capitalist competition.
(Interestingly, it pairs nicely with this feature in The Atlantic published today titled, “Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan,” which takes a more personal look at the upbringing and beliefs of the enigmatic CEO; Bezos declined to be interviewed for both articles. It ends on a particularly chilling kicker that everyone should read.)
Amazon’s growth has come at great cost to other companies and human workers
“Is Amazon Unstoppable?” smartly starts from a position of praise. It follows Ian Freed, an early Amazon employee who helped oversee the company’s Kindle, Fire Phone, Fire TV, and Alexa and Echo projects. One particularly interesting anecdote is how Freed’s failure with the Fire Phone gave birth to Amazon’s far grander ambitions in the artificial intelligence and smart home markets.
One of Freed’s standout ideas was a feature that would let you, using your voice, ask your phone to play a song. The feature became the foundation for Alexa and the Echo speaker, and Freed was given a substantial budget from Bezos himself to build the technology in house, instead of licensing it from a third-party company, as was the case with the Fire Phone.
The results have been staggering: Alexa is now in tens of millions of homes around the world, and it underpins Amazon’s continued expansion into the smart home and appliance markets. Alexa has also made Amazon a major player in artificial intelligence. Freed’s other successes have similarly helped Amazon dominate the market for e-readers and ebooks and digital set-top boxes and streaming devices. “No other tech company does as many unrelated things, on such a scale, as Amazon,” Duhigg writes.
But Duhigg’s examination of Freed — how passionate he was about Amazon’s internal company culture and how his dedication to Bezos’ infamous “Leadership Principles” gave birth to world-changing ideas and products — transitions to a more sinister look at the cost of Amazon’s growth. It’s here that the article’s main theme shines through. What, if anything, can stop a company that’s expanded this far and in such a short time, and how do we begin to calculate the damage left in its wake?
The article clocks in at more than 14,000 words, and it includes a thorough examination of all of the company’s most high-profile controversies that lays out with clinical precision the case against Amazon from the perspective of its fiercest critics. But it’s well worth every sentence to understand the breadth of Amazon’s business and what it could spell not just for the future of American commerce, but the dozens of other industries and product categories Amazon now engages in.
Here, again, is the link to “Is Amazon Unstoppable?” Go read it.