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New Amazon book on Jeff Bezos’s last years has goodies galore but won’t change your mind

May 12, 2021, 2:51 PM UTC

For a couple of decades, coverage of the most successful tech firms largely revolved around their innovations and cool new products. Leaders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos took on the aura of business heroes striving to modernize the 21st century economy.

Times have changed. Bloomberg editor Brad Stone’s 2013 book, The Everything Store, helped deconstruct the myth—at least around Amazon and Jeff Bezos. His book cast a light on some of the less savory business practices that built the e-commerce giant.

This week, Stone is out with a sequel, picking up the story of Amazon over the past decade or so. Some of the biggest revelations from the new book, Amazon Unbound, are already out on the web, including the bit Robert highlighted yesterday about the development of Alexa and some fresh reporting on the Bezos affair in the National Enquirer excerpted by Bloomberg.

But the full tome, at almost 500 pages, goes much deeper behind the scenes of Amazon’s recent history, including the development of Amazon Prime Video and Amazon’s own air freight service, the purchase of Whole Foods, and the debacle of the HQ2 sweepstakes. Stone is an intrepid and well-sourced reporter and offers plenty of attention-grabbing nuggets throughout.

Here’s a sampling of some that jumped out at me.

  • Possible other names for Alexa suggested by Jeff Bezos included Finch, Friday, and Samantha.
  • Bezos met with the team developing the Fire phone “every few days for three years.” All the attention didn’t save the phone from flopping.
  • Stone interviewed one former Amazon exec just before the exec was charged with murder.
  • Early execs on Amazon Web Services debated whether the now-dominant cloud player could ever reach $1 billion of revenue. It passed $45 billion last year.
  • Bezos hated the Amazon Prime series The Man in the High Castle. “The execution is terrible,” he complained to underlings. “Why didn’t you guys stop it?”
  • Bezos’s rocket company Blue Origin, competitor to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, once sought to recruit SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. (She rebuffed the entreaty.)
  • When Amazon negotiated to lease aircraft for its new air delivery unit, it also obtained stock warrants in the small public companies that owned the planes. When the deals were made public, the stocks soared and Amazon profited.
  • After Amazon got 238 proposals for its HQ2 plan, the company called officials at all of the cities not named in the top 20 to explain why they lost out. Even among the 20 finalists, 8 were secretly rated as “not viable” with no chance to win, including Denver and Austin.

On the other hand, despite all the in-depth reporting and surprising nuggets, there’s nothing in the overall narrative of Amazon Unbound that will change many minds about the company or its billionaire founder. The e-commerce behemoth throws its weight around and uses every means at its disposal to outpace competitors. Bezos runs a tight ship, as he always has, before deciding to step down at the very end.

The book is a great peek behind the scenes, but it’s not going to have much impact in the ongoing debate about whether Amazon has too much power or how it should be regulated in the future.


Fortune published the 2021 version of our Greatest leaders list today, obviously strongly influenced by actions addressing the pandemic. New Zealand prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ranked at the top in part due to her country’s expert handling of the virus. All of the 50 profiles are worth reading for inspiration about helping repair the world (“tikun olam“) and improving the human condition in myriad ways.

Among tech figures, this year’s list includes PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Ping An Group’s co-CEO Jessica Tan, Grab co-founders Anthony Tan and Hooi Ling Tan, former Google A.I. researcher Timnit Gebru, TSMC CEO C.C. Wei, General Catalyst chairman Kenneth Chenault, and DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis. The outgoing CEO of Amazon did not make the list, but his ex-wife McKenzie Scott did for her massive philanthropic efforts to address COVID.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Bulls mine money. After Coinbase's blockbuster market debut last month, some wondered about how defensible the startup's position was atop the heap of cryptocurrency exchanges. Now some of the skeptics are putting real money behind a challenger. Block.one debuted a new crypto exchange called Bullish, seeded with $10 billion of digital currency assets. Elsewhere in crypto land, a new digital token, dubbed Internet Computer, launched on Monday and raced to a market value of $45 billion, just cracking the top 10 most valuable digital assets. It's the latest smart contract blockchain challenger trying to edge out market leader Ethereum.

Going, going, gone. Adjacent to the cryptocurrency gold rush: EBay wants to get in on the non-fungible tokens, if it's not too late. The auction site said Tuesday it will start selling NFTs and add "new capabilities" to attract sales of blockchain-driven collectibles. And back to the other crypto gold rush: The CIA's favorite data miner, Palantir Technologies, said its first quarter revenue increased 49% to $341 million, better than analysts forecast. But the bigger "news" may have been CFO David Glazer telling analysts that the company will accept customer payments in bitcoin, and that it is considering stashing some of its corporate assets in crypto. Shares of Palantir, previously down 25% in 2021, jumped 9% on Tuesday.

My apps are sealed. At the Epic v Apple trial, some economic experts took the stand on Tuesday and Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers started probing them about one of Apple's most criticized rules. She questioned its ban on letting apps mention ways to pay other than through Apple's platform (say, via a web site). Without the so-called anti-steering rule, “the customer could choose whether they wanted to stay and make the purchase on the app or do it some other way, right?” the judge asked.

Thinkin' 'bout the things we used to do. The market for smart home devices known as the Internet of Things, or IoT, has been beset by conflicting and incompatible standards among devices from different manufacturers. That's why one smart lightbulb can be controlled by your Amazon Echo but not Apple's Siri, for example. On Tuesday, one of the multi-company standards efforts known as the Zigbee Alliance changed its name to the Connectivity Standards Alliance and adopted yet another new interoperability standard called Matter. It includes Apple, Amazon, Google, and others so maybe sometime soon IoT consumers will get more than a ¯_(ツ)_/¯ when they try to hook everything up.

Chasing pavements. Scooter titan Bird Rides is going public by merging with special purpose acquisition company Switchback II, dot.LA reports. The deal will value Bird at $2.3 billion, less than the $2.85 billion valuation it achieved early last year. But Bird's revenue declined 37% to $95 million in 2020 due to the pandemic.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

With millions of people working remotely, many moved to lower tax states for a better quality of life at a lower cost. But tax authorities sometimes demand proof that a high-income worker really spent most of their time in another locale. As Paul Sullivan reports for the New York Times, that's led to an explosion of apps that track user locations for a very specific purpose.

While each tax app has different levels of precision and features to upload supporting documents, they all fulfill the basic need to prove your location to a tax authority. When it comes time to file taxes, users download reports detailing where they worked with varying degrees of specificity, from a simple day count to more detailed location information.

“Over the past year, it’s becoming a contentious issue between states,” said Chester Spatt, professor of finance at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. “The question is what does it mean to have your employment be in another state in the virtual world? In the physical office world, it was easy.”

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Law firms are building A.I. expertise as regulation looms By Jeremy Kahn

What we’re getting wrong in the return-to-office debate By S. Mitra Kalita

Goldman Sachs director reportedly quits after striking it rich in Dogecoin By Chris Morris

How to help employees who may be dealing with issues like depression or anxiety By Meena Thiruvengadam

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BEFORE YOU GO

The U.S. Mint doesn't change the portraits on paper bills very often, though I'm hopeful Harriet Tubman will finally make it onto the $20 to replace Andrew Jackson sometime soon. The mint is a lot more relaxed about who shows up on coins. As part of its new American Woman Quarters Program, the mint unveiled its first two designs this week. New coins will carry the portraits of poet Maya Angelou and astronaut Sally Ride starting in January 2022. Quite the star power to kick off the new series.

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