The sheer and utter failure of Apple's online store

The sheer and utter failure of Apple's online store

Summary: #FAIL. That's the grade I give Apple's online store for its performance yesterday. And someone's head should roll.

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TOPICS: Apple
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The sheer and utter failure of Apple's online store - Jason O'Grady

Understatement of the year?

So there was this big Apple announcement in San Francisco yesterday and a few people were interested in it.

It turned out to be a new iPad -- you may have heard of it -- and millions of people want one.

Apple sent invitations to the media a week ahead of time that pretty much gave away the fact that it was going to announce a new iPad. Apple stopped just short of actually saying "we're announcing a new iPad next week," although the giant photo of a high-resolution iPad on the invitation was less-than-subtle.

Let's not forget that Apple also announced iPads in March of 2010 and 2011 too, so it doesn't take a soothsayer, mystic or a shaman to figure out that Apple would probably announce "the new" iPad in March of 2012 too.

And if you couldn't figure out that a new iPad was coming yesterday, Apple's began manufacturing the new iPads back in November and there has been a steady drumbeat of component/part and spec leaks all over the Interwebs for four months now.

Even if you've been living under a proverbial rock or just awoken from a three-year coma, it wouldn't take more than reading one newspaper, blog or website to realize that there's this killer "Post PC" product called "the iPad" that everyone is raving about! Kids, techies, grandparents, even your Mom. Everyone from CNBC anchors to two-year-old kids has an iPad. I have friends that have 4-5 iPads under one roof.

"What's your point?" I can almost hear you asking. My point is that if my one-year-old son and 81-year-old mother-in-law know about the iPad, then it's popular. And Apple knows this.

Apple sold 55 million iPads to date and is expected to sell 62 million more in 2012, so Apple knows that it has captured lightning in a bottle. Yet despite its reputation for being a supply-chain jedi and manufacturing ninja, Apple didn't anticipate that a lot of people would want to order iPads the moment that the Apple Store opened for business.

As soon as Apple took down the tacky "We'll be right back" post-it note on its billion-dollar-bill printing press (known as the Apple online store) yesterday the site slowed to a crawl and started throwing errors like it was serving Active Server Pages from a netbook connected to an old ISDN line in Tim Cook's basement.

That's right, the most valuable company in the world, one with $100 billion in liquid assets couldn't afford toss a few million at its ecommerce server farm so that it could take money from frothy-mouthed consumers who couldn't wait to pony up the $500 to $1,000 per unit to buy Apple's shiny new toy?

Apple -- in all its forecasting wisdom -- didn't anticipate that millions of people would be clicking "pre-order now" button at the exactly same time?

Are you kidding me?

The person in charge of Apple's online store should be summarily fired. Like yesterday. That's what Steve Jobs would do. I'm sure he'd roll over in his grave if the iPhone they buried him with had enough battery to launch the Apple Store app during the embarrassing pre-order fiasco.

If I was an AAPL shareholder (which I am not) I'd be out for blood because Apple couldn't get its act together to take money from millions of willing consumers waiting to enter their 16-digit credit card account numbers into Apple's web form.

Michael Dell dreams of having problems like this.

The answer is actually quite simple. When there will be a lot of demand, plan for it. Estimate how many people will place pre-orders on day one (in 2011 Apple sold 300,000 iPad 2s on the first day, so I'd plan on 3 million) then build the appropriate capacity. Then maybe double it again.

I'd allocate half the machines at Apple's new server farm in Maiden, NC to be a giant application farm just for taking iPad orders, then I'd allocate the other half as a hot fail-over if the first batch of servers failed. To hell with iTunes Match or iCloud or whatever else Apple is using it for.

Then it should have two more contingency plans.

Apple could have learned from scrappy startup Raspberry Pi which set up a static page ahead of taking orders for its bargain-basement (and highly anticipated) $25 ARM/GNU Linux PC (below). Apple could have easily put up a flat page that accepted (but didn't process) iPad orders.

The $25 Raspberry PI Linux PC - Jason O'Grady

Have you even eaten at a restaurant only to be told that "the credit card machine is down?" What did they do? Send you home? Turn you away? No! They improvised and probably wrote down your credit card information (long-hand, if necessary) and charged your card later.

Apple could have taken a page out of the rock band Phish's playbook and offered iPads via a "request system." In order to not kill its servers on ticket day the band promises nothing and instead takes "ticket requests" over a 7-12 day period. Them, after the request window closes, it randomly selects the winning orders, charges the credit cards, emails the winners (and losers) then mails the tickets a few weeks later. Using the Phish system there's no benefit to being the first order in, they're all weighted the same and it's simply luck of the draw. And guess what? The server never crashes.

If felt like Apple had a creaky old MacPro running one lousy instance of AIX and one lame application server serving its entire online store -- and guess what? It crashed. (Maybe that's why Apple's looking for an eCommerce QA Systems Integration Manager?)

I eventually got my iPad order in at around 6:45 pm ET (by using the iOS app on my iPhone) but guess what? That got screwed up to. I ended with two separate orders instead of one.

[Anyone want to buy my extra iPad? I'm selling it off a server running on a Raspberry Pi box connected to a WAP-server on an old Nokia phone in my garage. Sorry, I couldn't resist!]

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Topic: Apple

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59 comments
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  • Are you kidding?

    if you called their phone sales, they would take your number and offer to call you bakc but those calls never came either... It didn't matter though because they still took preorders into today.

    Either way, the website was similar to that of the black friday sales for some online merchants...

    Of course, I just need them to sell out and then I can name my own price!
    slickjim
  • does it really matter?

    Those who had issues pre-ordering will get one regardless of when and price.
    mike2k
  • I had no issues...

    I ordered my iPad an hour after the announcement ended.

    Waah much?
    http404
  • You think it cost Apple sales?

    I don't think so. Why spend a bunch of money, and I am not going to pretend to know how much it would cost, making "triple redundant" servers for a one day a year event. Apple knows very well those ordering yesterday, like myself, are not casual buyers that will decide "Oh well, I guess I'll go buy somebody else's tablet offering." NOPE, we had to have it and would have stayed up half the night and come back the next day if we had to ;) It's all the more satisfying isn't it "YEAH I got mine!! Who cares if it took me three hours?!"

    P.S. I ordered two but I really wanted two.
    oncall
    • Precisely

      People that complain about these kinds of things don't really understand the cost and time associated with building these systems.

      Quite aside from the insane cost, it really makes no business sense at all for Apple to delay their flagship product launch by a year just so that their pre-order system can be rock solid under any possible load.
      SlithyTove
      • Want to bet?

        and there is no excuse for it.
        It's not that difficult.
        rhonin
      • If you werent a stranger on the net...

        Sure i would take that bet.

        "It's not that difficult."

        Worked on many enterprise sales systems for larger, more popular companies than Apple have you? Lots of things look easy from the outside.
        SlithyTove
    • I bet it did

      but maybe not a lot.
      I couldn't get through and by hour three said the heck with it.
      Now I'm back to flipping a coin: New iPad or Prime HD?

      decisions decisions.......
      rhonin
      • Ummm no.

        This article is basically a re-hash of every whine-a-thon article that zdnet has published (over the last few years of course) the day after Apple opens up the pre-orders for a major product launch or releases a new big iOS update since the first iPhone. There will still be lines of people outside the Apple store to buy the remaining few iPads on the 16th.
        oncall
      • I love Apple's products as much as anyone, but...

        these "instant gratification" complaints seem infantile to me.

        I am going to purchase the newest iPad; I just don't like standing in line to give someone my money be it at a theater, restaurant, or Apple store.

        Isn't waiting for the crowds to die down a rather more mature approach than throwing a tantrum or not buying something out of spite?
        godsfault
  • Slow?

    "at around 2:30 pm ET yesterday the site was slow as molasses and throwing errors like it was running on Active Server Pages on a netbook connected to an old ISDN line in Tim Cook???s basement"

    Even worse, Apple store is running on WebObjects...

    Jokes aside, that billion NC datacenter doesn't seem doing much since Apple's couldn't handle it's own traffic. I wonder why couldn't they just host all their sites content to Level3 or Akaima.
    Samic
  • People will wait in line

    People will buy Apple stuff no matter what.
    They will stand in line at the store in rain or try to place their orders again and again while servers crash.
    It sounds like poetry to me :) These people are heroes :)
    paul2011
  • Instant gratification Apple. Make it magical, make it happen, now!!

    Or I'll hold my breath until I turn blue, so naaaah!
    sagec
  • Get over yourself!

    [i]"If I was an AAPL shareholder (which I am not) I???d be out for blood because Apple couldn???t get its act together [b]to take money from millions of willing consumers[/b] all to willing to happily enter their 16-digit credit card account number."[/i]

    Do you [i]really[/i] think anyone who couldn't order an iPad yesterday won't try again? Or you just being histrionic? As someone who [i]does[/i] have a long position in AAPL I'll say that if the online store crashes under the load of 3 million orders on the [b]day a product is announced[/b] I am [b]absolutely ecstatic[/b], and I'd much rather they put the money and effort into producing more devices to meet the demand that will still exist long after the initial order spike is forgotten by the server admins in the online store!
    matthew_maurice
  • I fail to see the issue here

    the majority will give them a pass, believing it was inevitable given the sheer amount of people ordering, in the sense that if Apple's servers could not handle the load, then no ones's servers could, as it is a physical impossibility.

    They will then just order their iPad the next day.

    :|
    Tim Cook
    • Short Sighted

      If any of my engineers had that attitude they would be seeking other pastures soonest.
      There is no excuse for something like this.
      Let ANY other company do the same and the zombies come calling looking for blood and brains.
      But Apple? oh no... the sheep go baaahhhh.

      Get real.
      rhonin
      • Happens all the time

        I have found this more common than not, although Apple is the largest case I've seen. Not being able to handle a massive spike single day spike in traffic due to a product announcement - it's a hassle, but certain not rare. Happens all too frequently, and many of us keep our blood pressure down and just order it later. Whenever I hear rants like Jason's, I can't help but be reminded of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r1CZTLk-Gk
        KenMarable
      • I'm afraid that it may be you...

        that needs to get real. It simply doesn't make economic sense to design a store or website according to some ultimate projected usage.

        rhonin, you seem to more interested in calling Apple customers sheep, rather than being sensible.
        godsfault
  • Let me see

    Frothing at the mouth over something Apple has done (to you). Not who I would have expected necessarily, but yes, I am clearly on zdnet.
    ego.sum.stig