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Up close and personal with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos




MILAN – Amazon was born in a car: Jeff Bezos wrote the first draft of his business plan for the company on a long drive between New York and Seattle.

It was symbolic for the company, which arrived on the scene in 1995, selling books over the Internet. Today, Amazon is the biggest store in the world, virtual or otherwise. Bezos, 48, whose personal fortune is currently estimated at more than $23 billion, is not one to flinch at a challenge, like that of recovering the remains of the Apollo 11 space mission from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean… or of launching a tablet to end the monopoly of the iPad. The first will begin a few months from now; the second is already under way.

The Kindle Fire is the only tablet that has managed to win a sizable share of a market dominated by Apple. In Italy, a revised and improved version will arrive on October 25. “In 2011, two dozen tablets were introduced to the market, but none were successful,” Bezos reflects.

Dressed in a white shirt and jeans, he is being interviewed at Amazon’s Milan office. “And why is that? Because they were just gadgets.”

LA STAMPA: And the Kindle Fire? What is that?

JEFF BEZOS: It is now Amazon’s best-selling product. But we rely on services, too. It is not enough for us just to sell one more device with superfast Wi-Fi, a high-quality interface, and a powerful processor. The Kindle Fire is also the door to our online store.

This is a different approach from that of Amazon’s competitors.

We don’t make any money from the tablet, nor with the eBook reader, like the new Paperwhite, which will be available in November, including in Italy. We can offer this kind of technology at a low price because our profits come from purchases in our store: books, music, film, games, magazines, but also other consumer goods.

So the technical specifications are not a priority for you?

It’s not that important for the customers to have the latest model. Someone who buys a book with a five-year-old Kindle still makes money for us. We have a new eBook reader that is better than all the others, but we are not making anyone change to it, while people who sell hardware need constant new purchases.

(At this point, Bezos looks ironically at my iPhone 5, which is recording the interview.) But over time, digital content has become more and more important, and today, the very concept of possession is arguable. What is the use of owning an mp3 file on a computer if you can listen to it streaming live whenever you want?

Here I will make a distinction. For films, it makes more sense to rent or stream, even if downloads are good for when you are offline. But downloading a one-megabyte e-book is not a problem. For music, Amazon has a hybrid solution. Files are saved to the cloud, and when you want them, you can stream them on almost any device, or download them again, naturally without having to pay again.

But in the future, will we be forced to see films on seven-inch tablets?

We have discovered how to make the Kindle Fire work with Microsoft X-boxes, Playstations, and smart TV. All you need is an ordinary cable to attach it to the television set.

What if you own an iPad?

We are working on interoperability. If you buy a book or a song from our store, you can enjoy it on any device. We have specific apps for iPads, iPhones and Androids, but also for Blackberry and computers, either Macs or Windows. This is unique. Think about the iTunes e-book: you can read it only on an iPad. It’s a completely different approach from ours. We have a much broader ecosystem.

This may not always be enough to guarantee truly low prices. Why on earth do digital books cost so much?

With our Kindle Direct Publishing program, anyone who writes can publish books directly, and usually they are cheaper than books from publishers. I am convinced that in the long run, this model will profoundly change the old publishing system. On the other hand, the publishing houses still have to learn about the eBook business. That will take some time. For us, that means better sales opportunities, because with the tablet and smartphone, both our digital and physical stores are easier to access.

What are the decisions you are most proud of?

I am proud when I choose the more courageous path for Amazon, even if it is more difficult and less profitable, as long as it is the most innovative. For example, until eight years ago, our only expertise was selling things online. So when we got into hardware and services with the Kindle, we had to start from scratch. Like children learning to walk, we stumbled, we made mistakes, but we continued to follow our instincts. It has been an experience that has made us grow.

Facebook cites the hacker culture; Apple places itself at the crossroads between art and technology. What about Amazon?

We have three basic rules. First, an obsession with the customer experience, and with the competition; then, a continual quest for innovation; and finally, patience. We are looking at the long term. We know how to wait for results.

Some see in you a new Steve Jobs. What do you think of that?

First of all, that is a great compliment, which I sincerely appreciate. But that is not how I see myself. At Amazon we have our own approach. We are following our own path.