Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos: Ruthless and brilliant

First impressions last. So some people still think of Amazon.com as an online bookseller, the form in which it arrived on consumers' horizons in the late 1990s.

But since then Amazon has been acquiring, expanding and diversifying at a dizzying speed. Jeff Bezos, its founder, chief executive and the owner of a wall-shaking laugh, has taken the company into shoes, diapers and flat-screen televisions, as well as cloud computing services and e-readers via its Kindle device.

Amazon's non-retail dexterity reached a new level last month when the Seattle-based company unveiled a Kindle-branded tablet computer, the Fire, to rival Apple's iPad.

The move underlined its transformation into a technology conglomerate, which has less in common with Barnes & Noble, the old-world bookseller, than with Apple and Google — its rivals in a battle for preeminence in digital video, music and books.

As a business partner tells Richard Brandt in "One Click," a profile of Amazon and its founder, Bezos is a "brutal tactician." The dot-com entrepreneur also "pushed his people with the finesse of a galley slave driver," writes Brandt, a veteran Silicon Valley journalist.

Bezos did not set out to become the world's biggest bookstore because of a misty-eyed affection for musty leather tomes. He did it because when he drew up a "deal flow chart" to assess which of 20 products was best suited to being sold online, books came out on top.

So it should have been no surprise, Brandt writes, that a decade later Bezos would seize on the idea for e-readers and digital books and "so readily reject the paper product that started his company."

The book's title, "One Click — Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com," comes from a notorious patent that Amazon registered for "One Click ordering" — the process that lets people buy online with just a single click of their mouse.

It's a simple idea. So simple that many in Silicon Valley complained it failed to meet the usual patent requirements for novelty and inventiveness.

By patenting it, however, Amazon prevented its competitors from adding a one-click feature to their sites. (Two clicks is an acceptable alternative.)

It was an early example of Bezos' ruthless wiles — but also of his instinct for what will work online. He saw that users would want everything to be easy and "frictionless," a point on which Apple and Google have also built their success.

Remember, too, that Bezos was collecting information about customers' tastes and foibles long before Facebook made it controversial.

Brandt's book, published by Portfolio, is neither a character assassination nor a eulogy. He portrays Bezos as a brilliant, high-octane inventor, and a geeky one, who has the rare gift of combining technical know-how and attention to detail with risk-taking and visionary ideas.

Brandt offers a lot of new pre-Amazon biographical material, as well as a fun account of Bezos' sideline passion for commercial space flight. However, he fails to nail the essence of Bezos' big vision.

The book sets out Bezos' four-part "philosophy": Obsess over customers, act like it's always Day 1, invent and reinvent until you get it right, and focus on the long term.

But that does not tell us where Bezos is taking Amazon. And Brandt was not able to put the question personally to Bezos, who rarely gives interviews. Much of the material comes from employees and competitors.

A view of the future would have helped to give the book the overriding message or narrative arc that it lacks. It may be that the Kindle Fire has just provided it.

Its structure also suffers from chronological warp. On Page 133 of 191 pages in total, we are still in January 2002, when Bezos reported Amazon's first net profit. It then jumps five years — bypassing the group's rapid overseas expansion — and moves to the 2007 launch of the Kindle e-reader.

But that does not diminish the value of the insights into Bezos, who deserves recognition as one of the few dot-com bosses who survived from the 1990s.

Reviewer Barney Jopson is the U.S. retail correspondent for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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