All you need to know about the missionary zeal of Amazon.com is learned in a few keystrokes. Type relentless.com into a search engine, and you're re-routed to Jeff Bezos' mushrooming everything store, a fond salute to an apt domain name that might have been.
That drive to dominate the online shopping experience clicked into a higher gear a few weeks ago with the unveiling of a new Amazon smartphone, the latest in a stream of industry-disruptive pivots that have included the creation of e-readers, tablets, TV set-top boxes, Prime membership and Amazon Web Services.
On the surface, the Fire (starting at $199) doesn't seem a likely threat to the iPhone or myriad Android devices. But viewed as an even more direct link between Amazon and its shoppers -- its Firefly button promises to make anything on the Web an instant purchase -- it is a stunning e-commerce chess move that makes Bezos USA TODAY's Tech Person of the Quarter.
"The (Fire) is just another chapter in Bezos' ongoing story of finding new ways to reach customers," says Brad Stone, a Bloomberg Businessweek writer and author of 2013's The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. "With the romance we're all having with our phones, this was a logical move."
Building phones -- not to mention Kindles and Fire TV boxes and warehouses -- costs money. Bezos has been notoriously relentless about pouring what slim profits Amazon pockets from its razor-thin margins back into the company's expansion plans, which include more distribution centers, a coming grocery delivery service, even potentially an army of delivery drones. Investors appear willing to stay on Bezos' long-view ride.
"When you're seen as a visionary CEO and founder like Bezos, you have the license to prioritize cash flow over net income," Stone says. "Even with dips in the stock, there's been five years of incremental growth (of 306% to $325 and market cap of $150 billion). Bezos' foot is clearly on the accelerator."
Specifically, the new Fire phone is "a long-term move that could allow Amazon to know its customers with a level of detail and depth that is unprecedented," says Dan Cryan, senior director of digital media at IHS Technology.
While many analysts point to $400 billion retail behemoth Walmart as a prime Amazon target, Cryan says, "Bezos wants Amazon to be broader than Walmart. He's diversifying beyond being a retailer to providing the infrastructure of the Internet."
Colin Gillis, tech analyst with BGC Partners, puts it succinctly: "Amazon wants to own its entire ecosystem. Look at eBay, which is very dependent on Google's ecosystem to reach people. Well, that is not Jeff Bezos. He doesn't want to be an app on your phone, he wants to be your phone. He's just built a mobile comparison shopper. It's game on."
Not that Bezos' competitors or suppliers are about to roll over. One of the biggest challenges facing the company could come with the imminent IPO of Chinese shopping juggernaut Alibaba, which has already launched its U.S. e-commerce play, 11 Main.
Then there's Amazon's current dispute with French publisher Hachette about what Bezos sees as inflated e-book margins, which has earned Bezos an evil-villain nickname -- Lord Bezomort -- from Hachette author and comedian Stephen Colbert.
"There's one view that sees Amazon trying to dominate the book industry in a scary way, and it is true they have an increasingly tight grip on this marketplace," says Andrew Albanese, senior writer with Publishers Weekly. "On the other hand, writing has been democratized through Amazon's e-book channel, and there's more literature out there than ever before."
What is clear from Stone's book about Bezos is that the man clearly keeps his own counsel, whether that's deciding to buy an old-media legend such as The Washington Post or including in each shareholder update the same letter he wrote in 1997, with the telling line: "We choose to prioritize growth because we believe that scale is central to achieving the potential of our business model."
What's missing but implicit in that edict is an almost messianic dedication to consumers, whether it's a 230-million item storeroom, rock-bottom prices or a no-muss returns process. In fact, if there was one surprising thing about the Fire announcement, it's perhaps that it wasn't free.
"The only thing more compelling than introducing that phone would have been giving it away in exchange for, say, a Prime membership," says Kerry Rice, senior analyst with Needham & Company. "Bezos would have seeded the market for even more e-commerce transactions that way."
Perhaps. But with Bezos, as with a shark, one thing is certain: His hunt for dominance will remain relentless.
About this series: Each quarter, USA TODAY's technology team of editors and writers selects an individual or company whose news is likely, over time, to have the broadest repercussions on the tech and consumer landscapes.
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