March 7, 2012

Apple Web Store Release-Minute Experience

I call this: mac,tech — Posted by KP @ 6:26 pm

Today was my first experience buying a major Apple product online at the moment orders started being taken. I did it once for my first MacBook Pro, but it was really just a speed bump with the then-new LED backlight. I’m sure I was one of very few people on earth who were sitting in front of the computer hitting “refresh” all morning for it.

I’ve always been a fan of getting the full experience — going to the store before sunrise, waiting on line, picking up my device among a crowd of people who are as excited as I am. Placing an order on a web site and waiting at home for the FedEx guy to show up sounds pretty boring. And actually takes longer, because you have to wait for the FedEx guy all day instead of waiting for the store to open at 7AM or whatever.

Well this time I did it. I think it was probably because I’ve been reading about some suppliers having trouble meeting demand for the iPad 3 screens, and that got me worried that the number of pre-orders that actually arrive on time might be small. So I determined that I had to make my decision about whether or not I wanted this thing in real time, as it was being announced, so I could know whether to pre-order as soon as the store re-opened for business.

Well after the announcement, it was still some time before the Yellow Sticky of Anticipation gave way to the pre-order screens. While I was somewhat underwhelmed by the announcement, it had everything I needed (the retina display), and nothing that gave me pause (like eliminating the 30-pin dock connector, or changing the form factor). Siri would have been nice, but there was speculation that due to the need for an always-on internet connection, they might not want to have a half-assed implementation for wifi-only devices. Still, I think if they’d included it with the 4G models, it would work properly, and probably encourage a hell of a lot of people who were on the fence to spend more for the 4G and data plan. I myself ordered the 4G, but partially because the data plans are very flexible, and you don’t have to have a contract. I want the radio in there just to be safe, but I’m curious if I’ll frequently use it, or if tethering to my iPhone is a workable solution when I’m away from wifi. I’m really undecided about all that, but dropping like $800 on something and realizing later that you bought the wrong one would suck. This way, the worst that could happen is I realize I spent a little more than I needed to.

Just a little mathematical game. If the iPad actually gets 73Mbps on LTE, it would take approximately 30 seconds to go over your monthly data limit on a 250MB plan. I’m going to try my damnedest to stick to that, though.

Anyway, this post is about the online purchase experience.

When the yellow sticky finally went away, I got through a couple of introductory “hey there’s a new iPad!” screens, hit about a million buttons that said “pre-order” before actually being taken anywhere that asked me to choose a device and start, you know, ordering it. The site was slow, but I was making progress.

I hit my first snag when I realized I didn’t plan in advance what color smart cover I wanted. I was actually expecting a new form factor, so I hadn’t thought at all about buying existing accessories, other than the fact that I wanted a smart cover if that was still how things worked with the new device. I thought about it as quickly as I could, and settled on the dark gray. I added it to my cart for $39.99. Then I was like, “wait a minute, this is an existing product — I could get one cheaper on Amazon and get points.” Then I went to Amazon, and no, actually, the dark gray one is pretty hard to come by. Then I was like, “I could go to an Apple Store during the coming week and see them all in person, so I can make a more informed decision, and it will also give me a tiny bit of the thrill of going to the store and having a physical thing to bring home.

So I decided to remove the cover from my cart. This is where the wheels start to come off the whole ordering process.

I removed the item and continued on my way through the screens. I logged into my account, entered my shipping address, and confirmed my credit card info. Then I noticed that the purchase amount is really high, even with the $70 sales tax. Somehow the smart cover had made its way back into my cart. Now remember, this is an item I’m going to buy, I just kind of wanted to see it in the store first to be sure. In order to remove the item again, it warned me I would have to go back to my cart, undoing all the entry I’ve done on this screen. I seriously debated if I was asking for trouble, or if I should press on ahead since I miraculously seemed to have gotten my order in before the store totally crashed under the demand. Like a damn fool, I went back.

I swear to god, I lost an hour of my life for that decision. Who knows how many thousands of people — tens of thousands? — got their orders in ahead of me, and what effect that might have if supplies are low. It’s still relatively early. I suspect that when pre-orders get delayed, they don’t affect the people who ordered in the first two hours. But still, Apple has been known to sell things at unprecedented rates.

Anyway, when I went back to fix my cart the store started buckling under the strain: error screens, buttons that when clicked did nothing and generated no progress bars or indication that the site is “thinking.” It was like the early days of the web, when you could click a button and then go make a snack and come back and see if it did anything, or whether you needed to click it again. That age-old debate of, “if I click it again will it go faster, or will I just confuse it and make it start all over again?” It was kind of quaint.

After about a half hour of this, I started wondering what the hell that giant data center in North Carolina does. It certainly doesn’t make iCloud not suck. I understand that investing in the kind of capacity that would be needed to smoothly handle events like this would probably only be useful about 48 hours a year, and it’s just not realistic to expect them to plan for it.

But still, I imagined some ambitious and curious Apple engineer spending his free time designing a system that could handle hundreds of thousands of simultaneous orders, maybe even millions. Proudly, he presents his creation to the big-wigs, saying that it could revolutionize Apple’s ability to smoothly handle the throngs of release-day buyers. And I picture Steve being like, “that’s great, but if our customers can place their orders in two minutes, they won’t love their devices as much. Part of the experience is that it took you two hours to buy the damn thing.” And you know what, Steve would have been right.

People always ask, “Why is it that in [insert year here], Apple is the only company in the world that has to take down their website to add a product.” Well of course they fucking don’t! They do it because the yellow sticky is part of the purchase. It’s an extended part of the unboxing. First there’s the yellow sticky, then there’s the progress bar moving slowly before dumping you on an error page, but that lets you know that if you keep hitting command-R, you’ll soon be taken to the re-launched store that takes forever to load each page before losing your order and making you start over again. Finally, after many false alarms, your order is placed. Then after a variable period of time, you get the box. Then you open the box, and you can’t see anything but “designed by Apple in California.” Then you see a glorified paper clip, or a sync cable or something, and finally you peel away the layers to find your device. In short, the web site not working is consistent with the rest of the anticipation involved in buying an Apple product. I forgot to mention the “You’re the next person in line! AT&T’s servers just crashed, please stand here for an hour” part of the experience, but I don’t like that part so much. It’s not cute when AT&T does it.

Anyway, I was starting to get worried about having wasted my chance to beat the crowds, but eventually my order got through. As big of a hassle as it ended up being, I’m glad I can go to the Apple Store and spend time carefully choosing my smart cover.

I think they hit the right span of time between the announcement and the release. There were rumors that it would be released this Friday, which probably would have caused pandemonium with people rushing to get their orders in. They also could have had a disappointing announcement like they have with certain iPhones, where the delay was like a month — too long to sustain the excitement. A week is just right. I have time to enjoy shopping for my smart cover, read up on the new hardware and software features, and think about what apps I want (even buy them in advance so I’m ready), and before I know it I’ll be an iPad owner.

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