Time Magazine has chosen its 'Person of the Year' award for 1999 and, this time around, the winner has come from the computer industry. Normally, we'd probably rally around such an award, especially when it singled out someone from our own industry, but the selection of Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos had heads shaking this weekend as a bewildered world wondered, huh? Bezos, who left his job at a New York investment firm in 1994 to start the online retailer Amazon.com, has yet to make a penny in his new venture hawking everything from books to home improvement gadgets. His site also hosts auctions, stealing a page (ahem) from the more successful eBay.com Web site. But is Bezos 'Person of the Year' material, right up there with Martin Luther King and Charles Lindbergh?
I don't think so.
The story of Amazon.com is already as steeped in myth as the early days of Apple Computer and Microsoft: Bezos and his compatriots drew up a list of twenty things that could be sold on the Web and then ordered the list so that the items that would have a better chance of success were near the top. The first item on the list, books, launched the site, which was known simply as an online bookseller when it began. And it was a credible bookseller, quickly showing mass-market standouts such as Borders and Barnes and Nobles how it was done online; those firms are still trying to catch up to the volume of books sold on Amazon.com.
Bezos and company then began a rapid expansion of Amazon.com, adding a host of other products for sale and new services, including music, video (later expanded from tapes into DVD), electronics, computer software, toys, video games, home improvement, auctions, and even "zShops," which feature new, used, and hard-to-find products. The goal was to establish a one-stop shopping point on the Web, a new version of branding. But the rapid growth hasn't paid off financially: Amazon.com has lost more money every year since it began, including an expected $350 million for 1999 and total losses of over $600 million. Bezos says the firm won't be profitable until 2002. But don't worry about Bezos; he was worth over $7 billion by late August.
And like a modern-day Microsoft, Bezos didn't invent eCommerce, though he did popularize it. One could argue that the name Amazon.com is part of the common knowledge in this country, at least among those people who are more than peripherally aware of the Internet. But financial success is not normally the sole motivation behind Time Magazine's prestigious award. Yes, Bezos capitalized on the phenomenal growth of the Internet (or at least he tried to). But, no, he's not worthy of this award. Not even close.
So shame on Time Magazine for rewarding a man who has done nothing more for humanity than provide a "one-click" method of buying books online when there are true humanitarians out there, toiling in places we would shudder to even imagine. From his comfortable digs in Seattle, Bezos can read about such people in books he orders from his own Web site. But to determine that such a man is in their league is wrong.