CEO of the Internet Photo: Nigel Parry; styling by Alvin Stillwell/Celestine Agency; Grooming by Erin Skipley/Ajentse
By Steven Levy
“What I’m about to show you,” Jeff Bezos says, “is the culmination of the many things we’ve been doing for 15 years.”
The CEO of Amazon.com, in regulation blue oxford shirt and jeans, is sitting in a conference room at his company’s spiffy new headquarters just north of downtown Seattle. It is mid-September, exactly one week before he will introduce a new line of Kindles to the world. He has already shown me two of them—one with a touchscreen, the other costing just $79—but that’s not what’s truly exciting him. It is a third gadget, the long-awaited Amazon tablet called the Kindle Fire, that represents his company’s most ambitious leap into the hearts, minds, and wallets of millions of consumers.
Bezos runs through the features that will soon set the tech world ablaze—the $199 price tag, the easy-to-hold size, the seamless access to Amazon’s rich and growing collection of digital media. When the Fire is introduced, analysts will declare it the strongest competitor yet to the iPad. Yet the Fire is not just a rival gadget, but something essentially different. The iPad is the flagship of the post-PC era—in which the desktop is replaced by lean, portable, gesture-driven tablets. As people will learn when Amazon ships it today, November 14, the Fire is an emblem of a post-web world, in which our devices are simply a means for us to directly connect with the goodies in someone’s data center.
While users of the iPad and the Fire will engage in many of the same activities—watching movies, reading books, playing Angry Birds—the philosophy behind the two tablets could not be more different. Apple is fundamentally a hardware company—91 percent of its revenue comes from sales of its coveted machines, compared to just 6 percent from iTunes. The iPad’s design, marketing, and product launches all emphasize the special character of the device itself, which the company views as a successor to the PC—complete with video-chat capabilities and word-processing software. Amazon, on the other hand, is a content-focused company—almost half of its revenue comes from sales of media like books, music, TV shows, and movies—and the fire-sale-priced Fire is designed to be primarily a passport to the large amount of that content that’s available digitally. The gadget comes preloaded with customers’ Amazon account information, and anyone who signs up for Amazon Prime, the company’s $79-a-year shipping service, will be able to access more than 12,000 (and counting) movies and TV shows on the Fire at no extra charge.
Indeed, Bezos doesn’t consider the Fire a mere device, preferring to call it a “media service.” While he takes pride in the Fire, he really sees it as an advanced mobile portal to Amazon’s cloud universe. That’s how Amazon has always treated the Kindle: New models simply offer improved ways of buying and reading the content. Replacing the hardware is no more complicated or emotionally involved than changing a flashlight battery.