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Jeffrey Preston Bezos had that same experience when he first peered into the maze of connected computers called the World Wide Web and realized that the future of retailing was glowing back at him. It's not that nobody else noticed--eBay's Pierre Omidyar also knew he was on to something. But Bezos' vision of the online retailing universe was so complete, his Amazon.com site so elegant and appealing, that it became from Day One the point of reference for anyone who had anything to sell online. And that, it turns out, is everyone.
There was a time when Bezos could say, "If I had a nickel for every time a potential investor told me this wouldn't work..." and then lapse off into head shaking. Now he follows that line with a wild, giggly laugh. No wonder: as of last week, Bezos had 200 billion nickels. A rich reward, to be sure, but how on earth can you compensate a man who can see the future? Perhaps by inaugurating him into that club of men and women selected for having had, "for better or worse," the biggest impact in a given year. Welcome, Jeff Bezos, to TIME's Person of the Year club. As befits a new-era entrepreneur, at 35 you are the fourth youngest individual ever, preceded by 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh in 1927; Queen Elizabeth II, who made the list in 1952 at age 26; and Martin Luther King Jr., who was 34 when he was selected in 1963. A pioneer, royalty and a revolutionary--noble company for the man who is, unquestionably, king of cybercommerce.
As far as names go, Amazon is a perfect choice. (Not least because its ticker symbol, AMZN, is a license-plate version of how the stock has performed.) The wild Amazon River, with its limitless branches, remains an ideal metaphor for a company that now sells everything from power tools to CDs, and is eagerly looking for new areas of expansion. It's possible to argue that Bezos didn't master much more than an evolution of commerce, replacing old-fashioned stores with a centralized sales and shipping center. But even that one change, he notes, grabbing a favorite word, is "huge." For old-line businesses like K Mart, getting new customers meant building new stores at a cost of millions. For Bezos, serving new customers costs next to nothing.
And he is still losing his pants. That's maybe the one thing people still really don't understand about the e-commerce revolution. If these are such hot businesses, then why are they hemorrhaging cash? Amazon--the company everyone wants to be like--could lose nearly $350 million this year. O.K., the Net is different, but don't profits and losses matter anymore? They do. Bezos insists Amazon's oldest businesses--books, music and video--will be profitable by the end of 2000.
But Amazon's losses are also a sign of the New Economics of Internet commerce. These new rules spring from the idea that in the new global marketplace whoever has the most information wins. While it used to be sellers who had all the information, buyers are getting smarter and smarter. At sites like mysimon.com it's possible to go shopping and search not only Amazon but also the collections of two dozen other booksellers to find the best deal. And in coming years--heck, at Net speed, in coming months--it will be possible to find the cheapest price on just about anything: wines, CDs, perhaps even body parts.