Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Lost in the Amazon Jungle

Just read James Marcus' book "Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut". This is a good read and worth it for anyone interested in working out what Amazon did right, what other Dot.Commers did wrong and those wondering what to do next online. He gives a warts-and-all look inside the organization. There is a little too much adulation of the Amazon founder and too much criticism of a fictionalized middle manager ("the bird"), but overall it is very revealing.

Despite being a sober and sensible computer professional, I was caught up in the Dot.Com boom of the late 1990s. I couldn't work out how these companies were going to make money or what was so new about some of the ideas. But the stock prices kept going up, so I bought some shares (against my broker's advice) and lost money. As Marcus details, it is now difficult to explain the exuberance of the time.

One problem I had with the book was that until a third of the way through I couldn't work out exactly what Marcus was hired to do at Amazon. Partly this was because in the Dot.Com era job titles were a bit vague. But also Marcus suffered from, and still seems to be suffering from, some of the delusions of the era. It seems that he was hired by Amazon to write and edit independent book reviews. He still seems to be under the delusion that he could be independent while being paid by a company selling books.

Amazon had the idea that they would create "content" (that is book reviews) as a way to make their web site more than just a mail order book shop. Towards the end of the book the very real human sadness by the editor employees is detailed, when Amazon worked out how to automate this process and made the staff reviewers redundant. In the end it turned out that the automated system was as good, or better, than the human editors, or simply that the editorial content made not difference to selling books.

Marcus details the battles between the reviewing staff and the marketing and sales people at Amazon. While he debunks many of the delusions surrounding the Dot.Com era he seems to have retained the delusion that Amazon was anything other than a company selling things and his job was to help sell things. Amazon sells books and so the job of those writing content at Amazon is to help sell books.

The other irony missed in this book is the old economy nature of Amazon's business. While using on-line technology, they were selling bits of coagulated crushed tree pulp (that is old fashioned printed paper books). Amazon did not invent a whole new business paradigm, they just slightly adapted the mail order business to electronic means. Electronic books were an early failure of the Dot.Com boom but lately may be making a comeback.

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