Amazon.com has immense power over the Internet. That’s easy to grasp intellectually, but a single fact late in Richard L. Brandt’s One Click: Jeff Bezos And The Rise Of Amazon.com really drives it home: Netflix’s Watch Instantly content streams using Amazon Web Services, though Amazon is ostensibly a competitor. The growing influence of the online marketplace means that Amazon should be considered one of the major companies shaping social use of the Internet, along with Google, Facebook, and Apple.
One Click focuses on how Amazon got to this point, with a simultaneous biography of founder Jeff Bezos and the company; Brandt takes the position that the two are too intertwined to separate. In a book this short—a light 200 pages—that may be necessary, but it gives the odd impression that a billion-dollar company exists as the extension of one man’s personality and will.
Fortunately, Bezos and Amazon are interesting enough to generally hold the book together. After a promising intro that covers Amazon’s reach and some of its dark side, Brandt sticks almost exclusively with a conventionally chronological approach, starting with Bezos’ precocious childhood, his growing ambitions (as a teen, he and a friend developed and taught at a successful summer camp for kids), and his college and work life before Amazon.
Once it gets into the development of Amazon, One Click tells a much more interesting story. The site’s meteoric rise to prominence fits almost perfectly with Bezos’ analyses and predictions. A customer-oriented model where users didn’t have to sign up until the last possible point in their shopping experience helped Amazon beat its early competitors. That same motivation led Amazon to allow customer reviews both positive and negative on the site, which solidified its buyer-friendly, almost underdog reputation, in spite of its rapid growth. That growth was also one of Bezos’ plans, as his first several years with the company were spent driving it to expand its market reach to become unassailable, rather than simply making money quickly. “It would literally be the stupidest decision any management team could make to make Amazon.com profitable right now.”
Bezos changed his tune on growth and profit swiftly at the time of the dot-com-bubble burst, and only two-thirds of the way through does One Click start becoming anything other than a hagiography. Yet by shunting any material that could be considered critical to the end of the book, and gliding past continuing controversies like the sales-tax issue, Brandt ends up making his book seem more like a pleasant, long-form profile than an in-depth biography. His story is interesting, but it doesn’t feel like the full story.