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Jeff Bezos won 2017 — and set Amazon up to dominate the next decade

Bezos is No. 1 on the Recode 100.

Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, a decade from now. The year is 2027.

By then, Amazon has become the largest online grocer in the United States — and it’s not even close.

In apparel, the e-commerce behemoth long ago surpassed Macy’s as the biggest retailer in the category, but now boasts multiple billion-dollar clothing brands of its own, too.

Amazon Alexa, the popular voice assistant, has overtaken Google as the most-used search engine — or voice engine, as they now say. It’s everywhere and powering the brains of everything.

And in the media world, Amazon has become the livestreaming partner of choice not only for the National Football League, but the National Basketball Association, too. (Adam Silver got his wish.)

After the year Amazon is about to complete in 2017 — with a stock price up 50 percent and a valuation north of $550 billion — this imagined future may end up being a conservative prediction of the domination for which Amazon is currently laying a foundation.

And when it does, we may look back at 2017 as the dawn of Amazon 3.0 — one characterized by an all-out assault on retail’s largest categories of food and apparel, a willingness to consummate blockbuster acquisitions, and the mainstreamification of a new computing platform built on our voice — one that follows the decade of Amazon 2.0 which began with the launches of Amazon Prime and Amazon Web Services in 2005 and 2006.

This year, Jeff Bezos, the architect and leader of this business for the last 23 years, reached deep into the heart of the grocery industry and snatched a challenged Whole Foods off the sale rack for nearly $14 billion.

Yes, the deal was big. Yes, it was bold. More surprising to me, though, was the rare public white flag waved by Bezos, one of the richest humans alive, by looking to a brick-and-mortar retailer for help; after 10 years of trying and mostly failing at making grocery delivery a workable business, this was a “We can’t do this on our own” moment.

In one of Bezos’s favorite initiatives, Amazon also rolled out at least seven private-label clothing brands at price points that most serious competitors can’t counter. Private-label is the oldest trick in the retail book, is what many competitors say. They will be sorry.

Amazon also unveiled a barrage of Alexa-powered devices and splashy TV campaigns, spinning the ridiculous idea of talking to a speaker into the future of computing.

And with its deal to stream NFL “Thursday Night Football,” Amazon tiptoed into live sports in what feels like just the beginning of a big push.

Then there was HQ2 — Amazon’s very public, very brilliant, if not slightly off-putting request for cities across North America to each roll out an embarrassment of riches to compete for the right to host a second Amazon headquarters. With it comes an Amazon vow to bless their city with up to 50,000 well-paying jobs in exchange for financial incentives the likes of which few corporations will ever see.

And we haven’t even discussed 2017 innovations in AWS or Amazon logistics, of which there were plenty. Even by Amazon standards, 2017 was a year of home run swings unabated. And when the company remained in the on-deck circle, their practice swings did damage, too — just the rumor of Amazon launching in a new market sent the stock prices of potential competitors tanking.

For Bezos, 2017 was the perfect Amazon blueprint: A frenzy of wondrous experimentation focused on the long-term horizon balanced by the operational excellence necessary to power the core businesses that are key to short-term success.

That sure sounds like a formula that’s tough to beat. Which is why when you ask smart people what’s the one thing that could possibly slow Amazon down, many will agree: The growing concern from some competitors, politicians and regulators that the company may need to be reined in.

For Amazon, the scrutiny goes beyond that. In the wake of a sexual harassment scandal that resulted in the resignation of Amazon’s Hollywood chief, there’s a new spotlight being aimed at the leadership team that Bezos has constructed. Out of the company’s top 18 executives, only one is a woman. For a company and leader that counts “develop the best” as a leadership principle, this remains a glaring weak spot.

For Bezos personally, having a net worth that reached $100 billion at one point this year also has people yearning to know how he will do good. His investment firm, Bezos Expeditions, funds some nonprofit and for-profit entities, and Amazon has recently donated new real estate space to at least two Seattle nonprofits, too.

After the New York Times inquired about his level of philanthropy, Bezos took to Twitter to solicit ideas for where and how to give. He has not yet revealed which ideas, if any, he would pursue, but has promised “more to come.”

But Bezos thinks of his societal contributions in other ways, too. He sees Blue Origin, the space exploration company in which he says he invests $1 billion annually, as a long-term project designed to save Earth. In his vision, we’ll one day relocate heavy industry into space, helping to ensure that this planet is not stripped of all its energy.

And his purchase of the Washington Post, he has said, was designed both to prop up and improve one of America’s most important journalistic outlets. The early results are promising.

In business and tech, 2017 seems like the apex for Bezos and Amazon. In 2027, we’ll realize it was actually just the start.

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