Jeff Bezos is stepping down as Amazon CEO to focus on his feud with Musk full-time

Bezos founded Amazon in 1994 as an online bookstore. But now he has bigger ambitions to take to the stars with his rocket company Blue Origin.

Jeff Bezos speaking at a presentation for his rocket company Blue Origin.
The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Jeff Bezos has announced he is stepping down as CEO of Amazon, marking the end of a 27-year run turning a simple online bookseller into the fourth largest company in the world by selling of everything from shoes to groceries and even cloud computing. On that last point, his named successor is Andy Jassy, the current head of Amazon Web Services. There were for a long time whispers that Jassy would someday take the helm.

End of an era — In his surprise announcement on Tuesday, Bezos suggested he intends to turn his attention to other interests, namely his Blue Origin rocket company. "I’m excited to announce that this Q3 I’ll transition to Executive Chair of the Amazon Board and Andy Jassy will become CEO," said Bezos in a letter. "In the Exec Chair role, I intend to focus my energies and attention on new products and early initiatives."

Bezos still owns over 10 percent of Amazon, meaning that he could continue being an influential force at the company. But privately, without taking all the punches for Amazon's ills — be it the plight of its warehouse workers, pollution caused by Amazon's vast logistics network, or claims that the company abuses its marketplace power.

Bezos follows in the footsteps of other tech titans to exit their companies for other pursuits, such as Microsoft's Bill Gates and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The latter pair stepped back from top roles in 2019 and have been investing startups in the field of aeronautics. Page has funded two startups building flying cars, Kitty Hawk and Zee.Aero. Brin, meanwhile, has reportedly been developing his own airship under a Google-owned company called Planetary Ventures.

Neither Page nor Brin have been seen in public since stepping down from acting roles at Google — which was probably part of the idea. Luckily for both, they retreated from management positions before the public sentiment on Silicon Valley turned sour. Even though they still hold majority voting control in Google, and can make decisions at the company, it is instead their successor Sundar Pichai who is forced to take the brunt of criticism directed at Google. The company is currently being sued by the Department of Justice over allegations of anticompetitive behavior.

Amazon is doing better than ever, having seen its dominance in commerce only solidify during the pandemic. Bezos likely feels now is better than ever to dip out and turn his attention to Blue Origin, the company he founded in 2000 to reinvigorate the space industry. "Being the CEO of Amazon is a deep responsibility, and it’s consuming," the letter reads. "When you have a responsibility like that, it’s hard to put attention on anything else." Like Gates before him, Bezos can also now spend time repairing his public image — he said he plans to spend more time on his $10 billion Earth Fund, which is designed to invest in initiatives combating climate change.

Space race — The race to introduce commercial space travel has heated up in recent years, with Blue Origin being just one of several companies hoping to unlock the potential of easy access to space. The company has been working aggressively on development of reusable rockets similar to Elon Musk's SpaceX. Making rockets that aren't destroyed after one use could tremendously bring down the cost of launches.

Blue Origin was founded two years prior to SpaceX but has held a much quieter profile. The Amazon founder might not be as outspoken as Musk, but his company has been making progress all the same. Last month it completed a successful test flight of its upgraded New Shepard vessel. Blue Origin hopes that to conduct its first crewed flight by as soon as early April.

But SpaceX remains in the lead. Musk last year made a jab at Blue Origin and Bezos, saying he's "too old" and Blue Origin "too slow" to reach the moon. Neither company has accomplished that, but SpaceX last year shuttled astronauts to the International Space Station as part of a lucrative NASA contract, an achievement Blue Origin hasn't yet matched.

Bezos and Musk are also in competition for something else: the title of world's wealthiest person.

Back in 2018, Bezos said he believes his $182 billion fortune is best spent in space, where humans could theoretically tap into unlimited resources and energy as Earth reaches its limits.

He has received criticism for those comments since there are so many ills his money could be used to fix down on Earth. But maybe solving inequality is too pedestrian a problem for a billionaire like Bezos. There's no denying his "Everything Store" has left an indelible mark on the world. Amazon changed the way people buy goods, and the world was forced the world to move with it.