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There Must be a Method to Amazon’s Complex, Hydra-Headed Madness

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Amazon headquarters in Seattle.Photograph by Mark Ralston — AFP/Getty Images

Here’s my favorite data point from Amazon’s fourth-quarter earnings release Thursday, a period in which the e-commerce beast earned $482 million (more than double the year-earlier quarter) on sales of $35.7 billion, up 22%. In the “highlights” section of the statement, Amazon (AMZN) listed 34 bullet points. These included its performance in India (strong), the number of features its Amazon Web Services unit released (722), and the new brands in its Dash Replenish program (Purell and Whirlpool).

This is a company with so much going on it can’t even address all of them in a lengthy news release and an hour-long call with investors. Perhaps it’s of interest what Amazon thinks of the management turmoil at its Zappos unit. That didn’t come up. An analyst asked how Twitch, the videogame streaming company Amazon bought in 2014 for $1 billion, is doing. The company’s response: “We continue to let Twitch do what Twitch does best.” The unit appears nowhere in Amazon’s report.

Amazon’s earnings were somewhat less than what Wall Street expected, so its stock gave up earlier gains in aftermarket trading. This is what failure looks like in a similar vein to Apple’s disappointing profit figure of only $18 billion for its most recent quarter.

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In fact, Amazon’s strengths were on full display. The AWS business is approaching a $10 billion annual sales pace, and Amazon said Korea will be AWS’s next big market. It teased investors with impressive non-number numbers, like the growth in worldwide Prime subscription membership increasing 51% to, well, Amazon doesn’t say to what.

Amazon is so good that everyone assumes there is a method to its complicated, complex, hydra-headed madness. (For a sense of this, go to www.amazon.com, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and read the tiny print on all of Amazon’s many brands and affiliated businesses.) After Thursday’s results, lofty expectations notwithstanding, it’s hard to argue with that.