By Semil Shah
In less than 20 years, the feats accomplished by Seattle's Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) are simply astounding and, curiously, often taken for granted. It is the world's largest online retailer, a master of logistics, an oracle of computing power, a wrangler of digital content, a beacon of customer service and reviews, and even innovative when it comes to conceiving handheld electronic devices. In terms of what can be reasonably expected of a business at its scale, Amazon has not only lived up to its namesake as a massive force of nature, but also its mythology as fierce warriors, waging battles along multiple fronts with remarkable dexterity.
For context, let's briefly revisit how Amazon has evolved since its origin. It began as a destination to buy books, and eventually other media. It then offered marketplace services for online retailers and/or individuals (similar to eBay), while simultaneously selling other physical goods for homes, offices, cars, and and beyond. During the shift to online retail, Amazon excelled by harnessing web data to optimize price, locating warehouses to optimize logistics, and experimenting with delivery models (e.g. "Prime") to segment its consumers, all the while providing trust through customer service and reviews. In its second decade, Amazon maintained its roots while becoming a player in the market for digital media, cloud computing services, and, most recently, manufacturing its own handheld electronic devices, a dizzying amount of diverse and complicated business lines to be committed to, and yet it continues to hum along, executing its way to a $100B+ market cap and an extremely bright future.
With such a glorious run to date, what does that future look like for Amazon, specifically?
We all know that Amazon is a truly exceptional company and their past is well-documented. My own belief is that if the company were located in Silicon Valley, it would receive an even more hype and be valued above its already impressive P/E ratios. My biases aside, I meet lots of up-and-coming founders who idolize Amazon's CEO over other role models, not to mention that they wouldn't mind being acquired by the company, either. With all this hard-earned momentum, I've been thinking about what Amazon could do to leverage it further into its third decade, to wedge into and newer markets, continue their march to dominance, and transform into an Apple-like company that, as it says in this telling television commercial , are the ones that put a "smile" on the box.
Amazon is known for selling and delivering physical goods, so we can expect the company to directly challenge the big offline consumer retail megastores as they accumulate more purchasing power, and as incumbents look to become more lean by shedding underperforming real estate liabilities and rising costs pegged to headcount. Amazon already offers these services, but will likely go beyond the Targets (NYSE:TGT) of the world to include chains like Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS), as well. Competing directly with the big CPG companies won't be easy given their scale, but early in the game, Amazon is off to a good start. Additionally, as Amazon's traffic provides it with enough liquidity to attract other sellers and buyers for its marketplace, the company will also be on the prowl for other web- and mobile-based acquisitions to add to its portfolio, which includes Diapers.com, Soap.com, and Zappos.
For a company that sold and delivered physical items, Amazon's ability to add digital goods to its arsenal has also been well-executed, to put it mildly. Beyond this, Amazon has already laid the groundwork to offer content-creators a platform to self-publish, distribute, and collect payments for their work, as well as creating its own publishing arm (kicked off by signing Tim Ferris). Amazon will be a player in the gaming space and has already dabbled in questions with Askville. Focusing on written content, I'd expect authors who once coveted publisher advances to experiment with a host of creation options and tests within the market, and then harness Amazon's distribution to get their work out to the masses. The fact that folks will be reading Amazon-created content (often on Amazon-branded devices) opens up a new world of possibilities with respect to the format of written or graphic content, as well as the analytics to measure its reach.
In devices, the Kindle is to Amazon as the iPod was to Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). Many iOS and Android users read books on these devices through Amazon's Kindle app, but we all know that Bezos doesn't just want to be an "app" on someone else's property, especially those that may fiddle with its ability to transact with customers and offers competitive products. The success of Kindle and its evolution has afforded Amazon the ability to, like Apple, expand its fleet of devices, recently announcing Paperwhite and two Kindle Fire options. And, like we've seen with Apple, these devices just won't be for reading - they'll likely create another mobile app ecosystem and provide Amazon with a robust channel to sell both digital goods and physical goods. Amazon, like iTunes, has your credit card information, your purchasing history and tastes, and wants to not only compete against iOS for gaming and media, but also provide the singular device where you buy stuff from. Beyond handheld units, we should expect mobile phones in this day and age and, if the rumors around Amazon's interest in acquiring Roku are true, we shouldn't be surprised to see them make a play to deliver content directly to our televisions, as well. As their device offerings increase, we should also anticipate the creation and deployment of its own advertising network within its ecosystem.
The Kindle "suite" of devices are delivery vehicles to bring users what they seek. Apple and application services such as Uber have trained us to expect that we can, with a tap of a finger, so we can expect the Kindle line to strive for that level of efficiency. While Apple provides the platform for other applications (like Uber) to provide amazing services or delivery, Amazon itself is a pioneer and expert in a variety of delivery options, such "Prime" and "Subscriptions." Amazon "Prime" is often heralded as feeling close to "magic," a program for customers to pay for the privilege of receiving a physical good within 48 hours, though in the future, 48 hours may not be good enough. So, Amazon is pushing the envelope on delivery options. Expect them to experiment with same-day delivery options (consistent with startups like Instacart and Postmates, among others), as well as their current moves with Amazon "Lockers" for consumers to pick up at a single location, which could save the company on shipping fees and also provide urban shoppers with a more secure delivery experience. Given Amazon's ability to experiment and execute, I also wouldn't be surprised to see the company also look into aerial drones as delivery channels, and given my fascination with Tacocopter, I do hope this happens.
With all of these diverse transactions, we should expect Amazon to innovate with payments, too. Amazon already has our credit card information, and now that it wants to power more purchases across the web and its devices, the company could look for alternatives to the annual fees they pay to the credit card companies today. Those solutions could come in the form of one-click payments (similar to iTunes) outside of its main website, either through third-party offerings or, more likely, through a major acquisition. This is undoubtedly a huge opportunity, and with PayPal struggling to adapt (and hurting eBay as well), Amazon may be licking its chops to make a move.
Amazon also provides consumers, mostly developers, with power. Whether its human power with Mechanical Turk, or more interestingly, computing power with Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon also has excelled at providing these critical services. In AWS specifically, Amazon has built a $1B annual business by providing cheap, efficient cloud computing power. It is well-document in the startup world, and as reports indicate, the company believes it has only scratched the surface in web services, with more profits to come. Microsoft has Azure and Google launched its own offerings, so Amazon will also face competition as thin margins here over time, but the real prize here is making inroads with the enterprise, to be part of larger companies' hybrid cloud models. There's also a chance Amazon moves up the stack with AWS beyond infrastructural services and offers platform services, as well, perhaps even integrating payments at this layer.
Goods. Devices. Delivery. Payments. Power. Amazon, perhaps more than any other online property (more than Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)), knows what you have purchased, what you may want to buy, has built the premier destination to purchase it and mapped out a mobile ecosystem, going so far as to build their own devices, and has will offer an array of delivery options to satisfy each segment's desires.
Naturally, with all of these initiatives, Amazon will face challenges and questions. Will their research arm at A9 Labs continue to provide the company with better science and experimentation? Will AWS continue to mint money for the company as enterprise shifts to hybrid cloud management models? Will the company be able to maintain its ability to execute across so many different types of business lines, let alone maintain focus? What types of acquisitions will it make? Will they stumble with respect to logistics as they bring their brand offline and local? (To date, they've kept an arms-length distance in local through an investment in Living Social, for instance.) Will their strategy of using Android as a framework make them too reliant on Google, which it competes with? Will they be able to carve out a sustainable piece of the mobile device ecosystem where Apple and Google have a headstart, and where Facebook most likely has to enter?
The future of Amazon is bright and also generates a dizzying amount of complex questions, but given its history to date, its ability to execute on multiple fronts, often in parallel, and still under the leadership of its dynamic, visionary founder, there's little doubt that, over the next decade, Amazon will continue to increase its dominance in many of these categories and also earn influence in others. Like their name suggests, from everything from A to Z, Amazon is that one brand, worldwide, which can fulfill demand and close the loop on the transaction and delivery, and by owning the end-to-end process of selling these commodities, it has afforded the company a war chest, mindshare, and the potential to grow even bigger. Seen through this lens, Amazon may just be getting started.