Jeffrey Preston Bezos: 1999 PERSON OF THE YEAR

The fast-moving Internet economy has a jungle of competitors... ...and here's the king

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It's one of those perfect autumn nights that make Manhattan seem magical. There is not a cloud in the sky, and looking up from the streets, you can see stars. On the avenues, white lights speckle the trees. There is a chill in the air--just enough to ice the occasional breath--and the urgent roar of the city is a reminder that New York at this moment may be the Rome of the modern world. The NASDAQ is at a record high. Again. New companies are being born. It is a perfect night for a launch party.

This year it has always been a perfect night for a launch party. This year it's as if "ideagetthemoneyhireaCEOlaunchpartyIPO" has become one big, fast millennial screech. Companies that barely existed a year ago are publicly traded, their founders ungodly wealthy. Some argue the world has entered a long boom, a kind of economic speed loop, where the centrifugal force spins off nothing but wealth and happiness. And launch parties. So up and off an elevator you go, melting into an unimaginably beautiful crowd. Every woman looks like a model; every man looks, well, Italian. This is an Internet party, right? What on earth could they be selling? A sign on the wall reminds you: this is the launch party for

And it is a lovely site: cosmetics tips, fragrance guides, a look at the latest European lip glosses. "Oh, come on," you're probably saying, "who is going to buy cosmetics online? If there is one thing no one will buy online, it's cosmetics. You've got to see how it looks, after all." But wait a minute. Didn't you say the same thing about books? "Who would buy books online? You have to be able to flip through the pages." And wasn't it you who said, "I'd never buy plane tickets online. I can't imagine not talking to my travel agent!" And mortgages? And toys? Concert tickets and CDs? "But I'd never," you said. Yes, you will. You are.

This year you'll buy about $15 billion worth of consumer goods online. Businesses will spend an additional $109 billion buying from one another. And while those numbers are but a small part of the overall retail economy--which clocks in at $2.7 trillion--e-business is rapidly replacing the traditional kind for almost any purchase you can imagine. By the time the ribbons are off the packages this week, Americans will have spent $5 billion online for holiday gifts--more than twice as much as last year.

It's easy to sit here today nodding about the power of electrified commerce. But back in the day when you--frankly, when everyone--was pooh-poohing the idea of online sales, there were a few folks who believed. One of them, on a summer day in 1994, quit his lucrative job at a New York City investment firm, packed up and, with his wife driving, made a now legendary voyage to Seattle to start what he thought would be a good business. By the time he arrived there he had a plan to sell books over the Internet. Investors thought he was crazy.

Every time a seismic shift takes place in our economy, there are people who feel the vibrations long before the rest of us do, vibrations so strong they demand action--action that can seem rash, even stupid. Ferry owner Cornelius Vanderbilt jumped ship when he saw the railroads coming. Thomas Watson Jr., overwhelmed by his sense that computers would be everywhere even when they were nowhere, bet his father's office-machine company on it: IBM.

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