But, you could buy a pizza

Amazon, the world in 1995, and things that are inevitable only in retrospect. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Darn, missed an anniversary. Not a wedding anniversary, the date for that one is tattooed on my brain.

Instead: the 25th anniversary of the launch of Amazon, which went live for the first time in July 1995.

For that entire first year, the company did only about $500,000 in revenue (all from selling books, of course). But its early revenue growth was insane: $15.7 million in 1996 and $147.8 million in 1997.

Profit was another story. That took until 2001 or 2003, depending on whether you’re talking about a quarter or an entire year.

Anyway, I had this one bookmarked, because I think of Amazon now as the corporate version of an old aphorism, about how things that seem quite improbable at the time often seem inevitable in retrospect.

Back in the mid-1990s, if you can transport yourself there, it really was wildly improbable.

No matter what you think of Jeff Bezos and his company and how it changed the world, it took a special kind of vision to see what the world would look like in the future, when most people were still rooted in a 20th-century, analog mindset.

Among the details:

  • Only 0.447 percent of the world had Internet access back then—and if you did, you probably had it through school or work — or else, you paid AOL or a local ISP $19.95 for five hours, and then $3 an hour afterward.

  • But, access was growing. A year before, it had been 0.252 percent; a year later, it would be 0.777 percent. In fact, Bezos built basically everything on this insight.

  • If you'd had the foresight, you could apparently still register any name for free. Also, while the Mosaic browser was a technological milestone, almost nothing you use today was around then, even in an early form. Netscape only launched in November 1994. Safari, Chrome and Firefox were many years in the future.

  • There was no e-commerce to speak of. When eBay launched a few months later, September 1995, buyers who won auctions would have to mail a check before they could get their item. (I remember doing this—a lot.)

  • The White House website was only a few months old. The websites of The Economist and MTV were built and owned by random employees who just took it upon themselves to put their companies online. Also, check out the archived versions of Apple.com (from 1997), Microsoft.com (1994), and Yahoo.com (1996). 

Another aphorism: They say pioneers get slaughtered and settlers prosper.

In fact, there was already one notable book retailer online before Amazon: Powells.com. And everyone thought Barnes and Noble and Borders were going to kill Amazon—that is, to the extent anyone even thought about Amazon at launch.

Another artifact: Pizza Hut had launched an early way to order pizza online.

You had to pay in cash when your food arrived. And while I’ve found the original press release, I have no idea how many people actually tried this.

I compile all of these date-related data points, frankly as an inoculation. I’m as prone as anyone to look back a bit and say, basically: Aw man, how did I miss it all? How come I’m not a billionaire?

And I wonder what’s going on right now that will shape the future, when I’m sitting on the sidelines. So, when you step back and realize that it wasn’t so easy to see like this, I think it’s a matter of simply being kind to yourself.

We miss big obvious things because we’re only human.

Well, most of us anyway.


7 other things worth your time

  • Joe Biden picked Sen. Kamala Harris of California as the Democratic nominee for vice-president. (LA Times)

  • Russia says it has a Covid-19 vaccine; others are highly skeptical. (WSJ, $)

  • Lucid Motors says its debut car will have a range of 517 miles, which is 25 percent longer than the highest-range Tesla S. (Business Insider)

  • At least 97,000 children were infected with Covid-19 during the last two weeks of July, marking a 40 percent increase. Meanwhile, 900 students and staff members at a Georgia school have been ordered to quarantine, and the school shut down, after “dozens” of positive tests were confirmed. (NPR, CBS News)

  • New Zealand has its first new Covid-19 cases in 102 days, and promptly shut down the country’s largest city, Auckland, after just four people tested positive. (Reuters)

  • 20th Century Fox is no more, as Disney dropped both “Century” and “Fox” from the name. (CNN)

  • Google says it’s working on a plan to ask some Android phone users to opt-in and allow the company to detect ground shaking, as a way to report earthquakes quickly, especially in places where there isn’t much regular detection equipment. (Popular Science)

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