Photo: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr
Amazon today is very different from what it was 10 years ago. In 2001, Amazon was still pretty much an online bookstore. Today not only does it sell almost everything under the sun, but it’s also a huge cloud computing company, a media seller and it even makes its own gadgets.What’s more, Amazon’s Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is nothing if not a long term thinker. Amazon stayed unprofitable for 8 years, including 5 as a public company, because Bezos understood that he had to reach scale before profitability. Amazon got into cloud cloud computing before almost anyone else because Bezos understood how huge it would be.
It’s impossible to think Jeff Bezos doesn’t have a clear idea of what Amazon will be like 20 years from now.
What is he thinking?
We have some ideas.
Of course Amazon is already the biggest online retailer. But it's still microscopic compared to the biggest offline retailers, just like online commerce is relative to offline commerce.
This is changing, and fast. 20 years from now, Amazon's commerce revenue will probably be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, like Walmart's.
One of the ways retailers push down costs for consumers, which is something Amazon is fanatical about, is through store brands: products similar to common branded goods, but made in volume under the store's own brand to lower margins. Expect Amazon to do this on a huge scale 20 years from now.
Amazon's business allowing third-parties to sell through them is a rip-roaring success and eating into eBay which, itself, is sinking into irrelevance because of poor management execution.
By 2030, expect Amazon to be an enormous eBay-like marketplace, except functioning much better.
Amazon already runs a marketplace for services called Mechanical Turk.
Right now it's only cheap, quick services like data entry. But there's no reason why Mechanical Turk can't evolve into a more elaborate marketplace for services a la eLance or Workmarket, and why Amazon couldn't sell services as well as products.
More generally, as globalization lowers barriers and makes it even more commonplace for freelancers to work for a multitude of companies across the globe, this promises to be a huge business.
Amazon is already the biggest provider of a certain type of cloud computing: commodity cloud computing. Doing something in volume, for cheap and with excellent execution is already what Amazon does best.
There's no reason why Amazon still won't be a huge player in a huge market in 2030. There will be many winners in cloud computing but Amazon will be one of the biggest.
As physical media, which is a huge share of Amazon's revenue now, goes the way of the dodo bird, Amazon is trying to sell digital media as well.
Some efforts are huge successes (Kindle), some not so much (music) and some yet unclear (video).
And it's impossible to know whether Google, Netflix, Apple, Facebook or some company we haven't heard of will have the cake in 2030. But there's no reason to believe Amazon won't be huge there.
The only company that has the scale and expertise in payments to take on PayPal's network effects is Amazon. And PayPal isn't very well run, often angers customers, and has an ugly product. Amazon's payments solution already exists and is already better than PayPal's and is growing, albeit slowly as far as we can tell.
Amazon should be able to own that market by 2030.
Companies who could take the cake instead: Facebook or Square.
This is the most speculative item on this list because Amazon has never given any indication of them getting into the third party logistics business a la UPS or DHL.
But think of how they got into cloud computing: they had built this enormous computing capacity to handle all their traffic, and they decided to start renting it out. Amazon has built an enormous logistics apparatus. Why wouldn't they at some point rent it out?
This is similar to how Chinese company Li & Fung became one of the biggest outsourcers in the world. Like many Chinese companies, they started out making their own clothes. And instead, they decided to rent out their supply chain expertise to Western companies. Now if you're Nike (or whoever), you send Li & Fung a design, and they make sure it gets built and shipped, to your specifications, in a timely manner and cheaply.
Why shouldn't Amazon at some point in the next 20 years offer other companies to ship, or even build, stuff for them?
A potential long-term threat to Amazon's business is 3D printing, which will let consumers make many of their own stuff.
But initiatives like the Kindle have taught us that Amazon embraces disruption rather than fighting it. It's impossible that a science fiction fan like Jeff Bezos won't embrace 3D printing.
They might do something like Shapeways, which is like an Etsy for 3D printing designs, where people upload their designs; when someone buys it, Shapeways builds it and ships it. They might just acquire it.
Amazon already has a highly successful 'tablet', the Kindle. It has a mobile app store. It has ambitions in payments, which will be a big part of the future of mobile. Mobile commerce is also going to be huge.
It's hard to know what mobile will look like in 20 years, and whether Amazon can or will make more consumer devices, but look for Amazon to be playing a big role in mobile 20 years from now.
Amazon has this thing called Mechanical Turk. It's 'artificial artificial intelligence.' On Mechanical Turk, millions of people perform millions of small, minute tasks for small amounts of money. Things like data entry, transcribing videos. The sort of things you'd think a computer should be able to do automatically, but actually can't.
The thing they don't tell you about Mechanical Turk, is that it's learning. The more people perform tasks on Mechanical Turk that computers can't do, the more algorithms can learn from the tasks performed and get better. Mechanical Turk isn't just artificial artificial intelligence, it's an artificial intelligence experiment. And one day soon, even if it doesn't become self-aware, it will probably form the basis for some pretty intelligent and groundbreaking software.
(Thanks to Matt Frost for pointing this out to us.)
It's not related to Amazon, but Bezos also has a highly secretive space company called Blue Origin. The company is developing reusable spaceships and its Latin motto stands for 'Step by step, ferociously.'
By 2030, Blue Origin will have taken lots of steps.