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.

June 19, 2009

iPhone 3GS Day

I call this: mac,phones — Posted by KP @ 5:39 am

4:32AM (Yawn) Good morning! Almost time to go! Jean-Alfred will be picking me up at 4:40. I’m not really tired, but I had no idea what my alarm was doing going off at 3:30.

4:58AM We timed it well. One guy arrived about 10 seconds ahead of us. We’re 2nd & 3rd in line.
After a couple minutes we’re up to about 6 people. The security guard is letting us wait in the vestibule cause it’s raining. The doors will open at 6:00.

5:20AM I don’t think you can tell from the picture but they’ve set up some velvet ropes outside the store.

5:40AM We are in the mall now and in front of the store. A friendly Apple employee is chatting us up. He has the new phone to do all their sales stuff. Here’s a picture of the compass. He said there’s 400-something reservations here!

The current topic of conversation is the Palm Pre. People surprised they went with a plastic screen.
The view from my spot in line:

As has been reported elsewhere, there are two lines — one for reservations and one not. I’m glad we’re at the front since we don’t have reservations and there are over 400 people who do. I heard a rumor that they will pull people from each line in turn (I believe 3 reservations to every 1 non-reserved). No idea if this is true though.

Many more employees showing up, wishing us good morning as they pass.

6:20AM Lost you there for a while. Man this WordPress client sucks. Had to delete and reinstall.

They came around serving coffee a little while ago. The line is now getting substantial. It hasn’t gone outside the ropes yet. Jean-Alfred is estimating about 40 people.

Apple employees inside look like they’re having a meeting.

The giant iPhone in the window next to us is showing demos of the software, including MMS. Ummm. Are they trying to antagonize AT&T, or too lazy to have multiple videos for different regions?

6:37AM Employees still meeting. Nothing much is new. The line has only grown a little bit.

6:50AM. Meeting over. Employees manning battle stations. We may be going soon!

Manager heard asking employees if they’re ready.

Looks like they may just be waiting on the clock.

Employees look as restless as we are!

And we’re going!!!

Because they are taking more reserved, I’m the 1st person who didn’t get immediately to a salesperson.

Being helped. The guy went to get it.

Having problems with upgrade pricing. On hold with AT&T. I think Jean-Alfred is done. Looks like he went for the white one.

No he’s done with purchase, now has to activate (he’s switching from Verizon).

Jean-Alfred is done, now waiting for me! Still on hold after at least 20 minutes.

Apple Store still unable to reach AT&T in excess of 45 minutes.

The plan now is I pay full price and can return the phone within 30 days if they establish that I paid too much. Just waiting for my original salesguy to be free. Employees here are great, keeping those of us at the problem desk in a good mood. I feel bad for them being on hold with AT&T all day.

8:55AM I’m home now with my new phone. Sorry I couldn’t update, but once my phone switched over, I didn’t have all my apps on it yet (and didn’t want to bother downloading them). Setting up the phone now.

Jean-Alfred tried to take a picture of me leaving the store with my phone, but he took a video instead. It cracks me up, so I will share that.

9:20AM Looks like the Apple servers are having some problems (maybe AT&T’s). My phone restored, but doesn’t seem able to register. iTunes is hanging at “Connecting to iTunes Store.” It restored my icon placement and bookmarks on the springboard, but hasn’t restored any of my apps or music. I hope it’s not a repeat of last year where I had to wait hours for my phone to be able to sync. I hate that they make it so that you can’t accomplish anything with the phone until it’s registered. Oh, it just gave up with an error message. Now it looks like it’s letting me sync anyway.

Oh, P.S. at the store they also were pushing a 30% discount on MobileMe when you buy the phone. Good deal. Jean-Alfred signed up for it, and I bought it as well, since I can apply that to my existing subscription, basically giving me a discount on my next year.

To elaborate on what my problem with AT&T was…
A while back I checked my eligibility for an upgrade, and the Apple and AT&T sites were showing only the option to pay $699 full price without a contract extension. I emailed AT&T customer service about this, and it was explained that if I signed a new 2-year contract I could get it for $499. Well when I went to buy the phone of course that option does not come up. As I said, the customer care guy was on hold with AT&T for an hour before I left, and none of the store employees had successfully gotten a call through to an AT&T rep since sales began. So they couldn’t straighten it out, but I bought the phone for full price, with the promise that I could return it within 30 days if I later was able to establish that I was wrongly charged, and then re-purchase it for the lower price. So I have just sent an email to my AT&T person, asking if there’s something wrong with my account file that needs to be corrected to allow the sale to go through. As I said at the Apple Store, I’m starting to believe she may have just pulled that story out of her ass, since none of the Apple Store employees knew anything about the policy either.

10:20AM Done syncing for the moment. I think maybe the speaker is just a touch louder when playing music. I’m listening to the same song on both phones side-by-side. The 3GS just sounds a little “fuller” somehow. Entirely possible it’s my imagination.

I’m still not able to access the App Store. Also my MobileMe SMTP server isn’t working. Incoming mail seems fine. Hardly surprising, I’m just really frustrated that no decent push-enabled apps have shown up in the store yet, and I want to see if more have been approved!

I may go back to bed now. I need to be still awake and calling a show in about 12 hours, and that just ain’t gonna happen! Maybe the server traffic will be better when I get up.

4:00PMI slept for a couple hours. By the time I got back up, OS 3.0 jailbreak is available for the 3G. Did that. All is well and the 3G works fine with the 3GS’s SIM card. Not sure what AT&T thinks of that. I’m sure they have some problem with me using the SIM card for the phone I paid $700 for in the phone I paid $500 for, for which service I pay $100/month. Those couple KB of data must really be causing some irreparable harm to their business because I used a different but almost-identical piece of hardware to consume it. I’ll be cautious with my data usage until some time passes and there are no horror stories from other people.

Also, I got a response to my email from a different rep at AT&T saying my problem is being forwarded to a “specialty group” and I will be contacted within one business day for more follow-up.

UPDATE: Just a couple hours later, somebody from AT&T called me, which I appreciate. Turns out I’m actually NOT eligible and the customer service lady who originally handled my inquiry, in her “extensive review” of my account seems to have neglected to check that I was eligible before telling me I was eligible. Well the good news is that it will all come out in the wash next year, as by paying $200 extra this time, I will be eligible for $400 off the next model.

I haven’t touched on this now because unless one wants to do complex testing, it’s kind of hard to objectively test speed. But lest you think the phone is not faster, let me just say it is. It’s snappy. I also noticed a speed boost with 3.0 on my 3G, but I wasn’t sure if that was simply because I was using a non-jailbroken firmware. Jailbreaking adds some background processes, so a legit firmware always runs a little faster anyway. Which is why I hope AT&T gets their tethering plan together quickly so I will never need to jailbreak again.

But with the 3GS, there is a definite speed improvement above and beyond the performance of the 3G. This is one of the main reasons I wanted to upgrade. Annoying splash screens on apps that almost made me want to delete them are now gone in just a second or two. The camera takes pictures faster, everything just kind of zips along. To me even a couple seconds’ difference is a huge advantage in usability, because I will now make decisions differently. If I only have a couple seconds to take a picture or jot a note to myself, I may now bother to do so where before I would have thought I wouldn’t have time.

I can’t wait to play with the camera more. I think this is the best thing about the phone for me. I take a lot of pictures, in situations where a phone camera is not really the best choice. Almost all the photos in this blog in the last 9 months or so were taken with my 3G iPhone, as well as my entire Flickr photostream. One of my Flickr photos of the St. Louis arch was even chosen to be published in an online travel guide. I have been very impressed with the ability of the iPhone to take decent pictures and upload them instantly and with GPS coordinates to various places on the web. I think it has changed the rules of casual photography, especially for bloggers. The 3G does pretty well for a phone camera, but I think the 3GS will close the gap between phone and real camera even more. When I’m someplace more interesting than my apartment I’ll start taking some pics for a later post.

Important Tip!
gpsI was about to write a strongly worded post about how the Maps app doesn’t show the direction you’re facing to take advantage of the new compass, but TUAW has a post explaining all. You just have to hit the location button twice to toggle it on, and then you can spin around and the map will rotate so that the direction you’re facing is always “up” on the map. As someone who is frequently away from home and in unfamiliar places, this may be the greatest feature ever. I feel like a character in a video game now.

June 18, 2009

iPhone 3GS News Coming Soon

I call this: phones — Posted by KP @ 9:19 am

picture-1Well it’s just 22 hours or so before the release of the iPhone 3GS here on the east coast. Hello, Dolly! has its first performance this afternoon, then we have a little party at our choreographer’s house (famous for her midnight volleyball games, although this time it might be “rainy, early-evening volleyball”).

Then tomorrow at the crack of dawn — literally — I will be traveling with my friend and co-worker Jean-Alfred to the Apple Store, where we will line up for the new iPhone. I did it last year, but I was by myself so it was kind of boring, and I was there for four and a half hours with only a Windows Mobile phone (yuck!) to keep me entertained and informed. I think this year will be much better, and I hope I will not be standing still in line for an hour or more while AT&T’s servers are crashed.

I plan to blog our experience in line, so check back tomorrow!

April 23, 2009

My Week in Computing

I call this: computers,mac,phones — Posted by KP @ 10:17 pm

The biggest event of my week was yesterday when we visited the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania. As befitting a giant mall, of course there is an Apple Store. I decided to take my chances on a walk-in visit to the Genius Bar to see if anything could be done about my Macbook Pro battery.

A little background, because I don’t bitch about my battery nearly enough for you to have known it was going on: my computer is not quite two years old, and its second battery has withered and died. The first battery lasted pretty much a year exactly, before the battery life got to a point where it was really negating the purpose of having a laptop (somewhere around a half hour). I probably had a case for premature failure, but I just bought a new one, and was happy.

Cut to ten months later. While the battery life on the second one had not become quite so brief (maybe an hour to an hour and a half), the battery was all confused. Diagnostic programs reported the battery health at 40% after 90-something charge cycles, which based on my perusal of the Apple Support forums, is way worse than a lot of people who were able to get their batteries replaced. Worst of all, instead of simply dying quickly, it was misreporting its charge, so that the computer would show it maybe 30% full, and instead of showing a low battery warning or forcing the computer to sleep, it would completely shut off without warning, which is, um, terrible, in so many ways. It had just started doing this before the logic board failure, so when the computer died I thought maybe the battery was not to blame after all, but the problem continued after the repair.

While my computer is sadly without Apple Care, the battery is less than a year old, and thus has its own warranty. It’s clearly indicated on the receipt, which I made sure to have on my iPhone in PDF format before going to the store.

So I walked into the store and was able to get an appointment right away, and within 5 minutes was talking to the genius. He booted my computer from an old iPod nano which had some diagnostic software on it (as I tried to stifle my excitement at this idea of using my old nano as an 8GB flash drive), and after a few seconds, the screen popped up with this big red box with the word “BAD” in it in huge letters (artist’s rendering above). It was really comical. Well that settled that! I showed him the PDF including the warranty date, signed some papers and walked away with a brand new battery. Between the logic board and the battery I feel like I have a brand new Mac.

Right now I’m using my days off to be a good little girl and train the battery properly. It’s probably going to want to be shut down soon — oops, there goes the warning — so bye!