Imagine the deprivations of a home that lacked electricity and a telephone. But go back a few generations and this was the typical household. The inventions of Edison and Bell have changed the way we live.
As I write this, I have just helped move my son into a college room in Philadelphia - no easy logistical feat if you live in England - but the magic of Amazon.com transformed the experience. Every conceivable student requirement was available from its website. On move-in day, neat cardboard boxes arrived - containing pillows, bed linen, lamps, towels, tools, office supplies, coat hangers, electronics and, of course, cut-price books. It all turned up within 48 hours of being ordered from thousands of miles away. How did this happen so fast? And does it make Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder, the Edison or Bell of today? The answers come in Richard Brandt's enjoyable book, One Click.
Bezos is the geek made good. As a Texas schoolboy he was considered clever; as a university student he was brilliant. Getting into Princeton for computer science was an achievement - but to emerge summa cum laude (passing in the top 3%) marks an unusual academic talent.
His background is the stuff of a mini-series. His maternal grandfather was a real rocket scientist and Texan rancher. His biological father left his teenage mother when he was just 18 months old. His adoptive father (a Cuban exile named Bezos) raised him. After Princeton, he took a series of jobs on Wall Street before coming up with the idea for Amazon, having done a course on how to run a bookshop.
Amazon was launched in a garage (literally) in 1995 and did its IPO in 1997, when it purchased its first giant warehouse. By 2000, it recorded annual losses of $1.4bn and was 'the biggest money loser on the internet', moving from 'internet poster child to internet whipping boy'. By 2010 it was worth more than $80bn, having launched the Kindle and pioneered cloud computing.
One Click is far from being the first account of Amazon. There are several books and many magazine stories. Time named Bezos Person of the Year back in 1999. The wealth of past material can be seen from the huge number of attributed quotes and extensive notes at the back of One Click.
Author Richard Brandt is an award-winning magazine writer and he has the classic US journalist's approach - meticulously researched and with breathless, pithy commentary, including 'as the recession deepened in 2000, Amazon's stock plummeted like spit off a bridge'.
If you are seeking revelations or deep original insights, you will have to wait for the Bezos autobiography - which may never happen, for, as Brandt ruefully comments, 'Bezos virtually never gives interviews'.
The book explains how Bezos learned from early mistakes, developing his site by trial and error, applying the best practices of old-world bricks and mortar shops to the mechanics and techniques of online. Amazon, like Net-a-Porter and Asos, demonstrates the extraordinary convergence between media and retailing. Time and again, Brandt emphasises Amazon's focus on customer satisfaction and Bezos's obsessive micro-management. If you are an Amazon customer you will enjoy reading how the site's user-friendly features emerged. For general business reading, it's a great case study of how to build a multibillion dollar company.
Amazon is now such a giant part of the ecology of online retailing it is sobering to be told of the relative chaos of its formative days. In its early months, sales numbered in the hundreds, individual orders were taken by telephone and the books were packed by Bezos himself kneeling on a concrete floor - an early innovation was going out to buy a few packing tables so he could work standing up.
It is all but impossible to disentangle the story of Amazon from that of Bezos himself. It's an account of ambition, self-belief and persistence. But the man remains an enigma. The essence of his motivation is perhaps captured by two quotes: 'He didn't set out to build the world's biggest bookstore ...
He wanted simply to create a hit company by leveraging his business and technology skills' and 'Bezos's pledge was to create the world's most customer-centric company'.
In pursuit of customer service, an early Amazon innovation was the 'one click' process of the book's title. In a controversial move, Bezos filed for patent protection of this ultra-simple (and hugely popular) idea. Despite many attempts to overturn it and considerable protest, the patent has been upheld and remains a central part of the Amazon business model.
One Click is a prime example of a 'cut and paste' style of book built on press clippings, but this does not prevent it being a good story told well. If you want to understand the Bezos phenomenon, this is an easy and efficient way to do it - just like shopping on Amazon.
One Click: Jeff Bezos and the rise of Amazon.com
Richard L Brandt
Penguin Portfolio £14.99
- Roger Parry is chairman of several media companies. His book The Ascent of Media (Nicholas Brealey) has just been published.