Steve Jobs licensed Amazon’s one-click patent for $1 million in one phone call

What Apple was selling back in 1999.
What Apple was selling back in 1999.
Image: REUTERS/Peter Morgan
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In 1999, Amazon—then merely “Earth’s biggest bookstore” rather than a corporate beast that shall soon devour everything in its path—introduced and patented one-click payments. This was in the early days of e-commerce when people were fearful of sending their credit-card details online. One-click processing allowed the startup to keep customers’ billing details on file so that they could make instant purchases.

That feature quickly came to Apple in 2000 in one of the earliest versions of its online store. “Licensing’s 1-Click patent and trademark will allow us to offer our customers an even easier and faster online buying experience,” Steve Jobs said at the time.

A Wired magazine oral history of Infinite Loop, Apple’s corporate offices in Cupertino, California for most of its existence, tells the behind-the-scenes story of that decision. It was made with the usual gusto that Jobs—back at Apple for three years after having been thrown out of his own company—was known for.  Mike Slade, Jobs’s special assistant from 1999–04, told the magazine:

One day in Steve’s office we were talking about some gadget, it was like in ’98 or early ’99, and he just went and bought it on Amazon. He was in awe about how cool it was to buy things with one click. So he called up Amazon and said, “Hey, this is Steve Jobs,” and licensed that one-click patent for a million bucks.

This was classic Jobs decision-making. A couple of years later, he would again make another serendipitous snap decision on a phone call that would change Apple. As told in Walter Isaacson’s authorized Steve Jobs biography, Apple executive Jon Rubinstein was visiting a Toshiba factory in February 2001 when he was shown some new 1.8-inch hard drives the Japanese company did not know what to do with. Rubinstein kept a straight face and called Jobs, who was also in Tokyo, and said it would be perfect for a MP3 player they were mulling. Isaacson wrote:

They met that night at the Hotel Okura, where Jobs was staying. “I know how to do it now,” Rubinstein told him. “All I need is a $10 million check.” Jobs immediately authorized it.

When Apple licensed Amazon’s patent in September 2000, Apple had a market cap of $8.4 billion and Amazon had one of $13.7 billion. Recently, Apple became the first US company to reach $1 trillion—followed soon after by Amazon.

As for the one-click payment system that helped build both their online stores, the US patent to that expired in September 2017.