Five years ago today— Amazon (AMZN) Chief Executive Jeff Bezos appeared before a group of journalists and publishing executives at the W Hotel in lower Manhattan to introduce something completely unexpected from a company widely thought of at the time as an online retailer: an electronic reading device. Oddly shaped, with a sluggish black-and-white screen and a jumble of angular buttons, the original Kindle resembled the unholy spawn of a calculator and a BlackBerry more than a revolutionary piece of hardware. Despite its peculiar design, the Kindle was easy to use and allowed owners to quickly download a book from Amazon’s vast catalog without connecting to a PC. That, it turned out, was the magic trick that not only transformed an industry but also Amazon’s own image in the eyes of the world.
There are certain moments in the history of technology that demand special acknowledgement. The introduction of the IBM PC in 1981 was such an inflection point, as was Microsoft’s (MSFT) rollout of Windows 95, which made computers accessible in many regular households. So was Apple’s (AAPL) introduction of the iPod in 2001, the iPhone in 2007, and probably even the iPad in 2010. The first Kindle belongs in that high-tech hall of fame. Code-named Fiona, the original Kindle was out of stock for much of its 15-month life but showed enough promise that the publishing world finally began to embrace the long-heralded promise of digital books. “I spent literally decades trying to get publishers to pay attention to e-books and I know how resistant they were to the idea,” says Tim O’Reilly, the founder of computer book imprint and conference organizer O’Reilly Media. “Most publishers just weren’t willing to move. Jeff made them all move, and he took a bold bet on hardware and got into a different business that didn’t necessarily play to Amazon’s strengths.”