The Geek: Charles Arthur

Ten years old, and Amazon is still the leader of the pack

Amazon's most remarkable achievement was not getting people to buy books online, although plenty of happy authors are grateful for that; someone other than founder Jeff Bezos would have had the same idea eventually. What Amazon did, and we should be thankful for, is that, despite being first, it made finding stuff and buying it simple, at a time when online shopping was an oxymoron. Given all the media coverage that Jeff Bezos got when Amazon.com started, a bad design might have set the tenor of web shopping for years. Instead, we got a gold standard, right from the outset.

What is difficult to recall is that selling books online was revolutionary in 1995. Most people on the internet had dial-up modems, limited to 33.6Kbit/s (56Kb/s wasn't ratified until 1998). Having an e-mail address made you unusual, at least in the UK. Yet even then, Amazon was right on the money, with a simplicity of layout and structure that even now puts many rivals in the shade. Have a look at web.archive.org/web/19991013091817/http://amazon.com/ (a page from October 1999, captured by the Wayback Machine at web.archive.org). There are wish lists, recommendations, and a burgeoning marketplace that had gone beyond books to include CDs, DVDs, toys, games, electronics and auctions. Not so different from the present.

What was also so good about Amazon was its usability. First, the ease of finding the things you wanted, and the things you didn't realise you wanted. From the very earliest days, Amazon made search the top function. Look at it in 1999, and now in its present incarnation: the principal difference is that the search box has grown and moved more towards the centre. In this, that "online bookstore" - as many were wont to write it off - prefigured all the things that exercise us now. Arguably, if Bill Gates had paid more attention to that little company down the road from Microsoft's Redmond headquarters (Amazon set up in Seattle, originally under the name of cadabra.com - geddit?), then he wouldn't be worrying so much about Google today. He'd have realised how important search was when you have a catalogue that's expanding by the day. And that's before considering the "people who bought X also bought Y", which has achieved many, many extra sales.

The second thing that makes Amazon special is how easy it makes buying things. Amazon shows you where you are in the buying process, reassures you about your security, makes it easy to send items to friends, and to write messages. Many sites still haven't worked this out - try ordering flowers from Interflora.co.uk if you don't believe me, and compare it with buying from amazon.co.uk.

Everyone on the web has cause to bear Amazon plenty of goodwill. Here's to the next 10.

www.charlesarthur.com/blog

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