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Amazon's Bezos: Maybe the most second-guessed genius in tech

Almost from the start, CEO Jeff Bezos has had to butt heads with a gaggle of critics pressing to see short-term returns at Amazon.

Dan Farber
Jeff Bezos is fond of a line that he wrote in a note to Amazon's shareholders in 1997: "We will make bold rather than timid investment decisions where we see a sufficient probability of gaining market leadership advantages."

That's about as good as you'll get it for a one-line summation of the approach adopted by one of the most second-guessed CEOs in the history of the tech industry -- as well as one of its most successful. But investors with short-term horizons haven't been so enamored of a CEO more keen on doing what he thinks is best for the company's long-term prospects. Indeed, the record will show that throughout Amazon's 18-year history, Wall Street has time and again nagged Bezos about the amount of money spent on Amazon's sundry "investments" as well as its refusal to share the wealth in the form of quarterly dividends.

Tune in to CNET's live blog from Amazon's Santa Monica press conference starting at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET today.

Jeff Bezos at Kindle Fire announcement in New York, Sept. 28, 2011 CNET

That complaint has been around for years, even as Bezos created one of the Internet's early juggernauts. Time magazine named him its "Person of the Year" in 1999. Bezos, Time wrote, had "done more than construct an online mall. He's helped build the foundation of our future." That's a bit schmaltzy but it's a fair appreciation of someone who did as much as any of his peers to help usher in a veritable revolution in retail. Indeed, only three other people younger than Bezos, then 35 years old, had ever adorned Time's cover: 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh in 1927, 26-year-old Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, and Martin Luther King Jr., who was 34 when selected in 1963.

As it recovered from the dot-com meltdown, Amazon also began moving beyond its roots with several non-retail revenue businesses. In 2006, Bezos pointed Amazon in a new direction when the company introduced EC2, an acronym for Elastic Compute Cloud. The idea was to let users rent data storage and computer server time from Amazon like a utility. That was paired with the company's S3, or Simple Storage Service, through which businesses could use Amazon drives to store their data and programs for a monthly charge -- a boon to cash-strapped startups, which could dispense with having to make big computing investments.

But in straying from its roots, Amazon also was moving into a big -- and highly contested -- competition with the likes of other big technology companies like Google and Microsoft offering similar services. In the beginning, all this predictably caused more griping on Wall Street about the amount of money Bezos was spending. That's never going to go away entirely. Consider that Amazon had $3.2 billion in SG&A expenses during its June quarter, up to 25 percent of total sales from 22 percent during the year-earlier quarter. But with the stock now testing the $250 level and the company growing about 40 percent annually in the past two years, Bezos doesn't have to watch his back.

Would Jeff Bezos share Amazon's exclusive grip on the Kindle Fire? Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

And now Amazon is -- pardon the overused pun -- rekindling the fire. In this case, the 7-inch Kindle fire. Today, the company is widely expected to announce its latest entry -- or entries. Make sure to tune in to CNET's live blog from the event. CNET reported last week that Amazon will debut two 7-inch Kindle Fires. The company's entry into the tablet computing market also has set up quite the struggle with Apple and Microsoft. Apple is expected to announce a refresh of its iPad sometime this month, while fall will bring the arrival of Microsoft's Surface tablet as well as OEM tablets built around the Windows operating system.

Next on the Bezos agenda -- how about a smartphone? Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney late last year predicted that Amazon would launch its own smartphone sometime in the final quarter of 2012. Meanwhile, the rumor is again out and about. Word has it that the phone is still in development but we might get a peek at today's Kindle rollout. Maybe there's a "one more thing" tucked away in an upcoming Bezos speech -- either today or the not-too-distant future.

It's not all gadgets and e-commerce for Amazon's Jeff Bezos. He also has a side project called Blue Origin that's been angling for a piece of NASA's commercial space business. NASA/Bill Ingalls