Google Nexus 4: Play Store debacle gives buyers the Backorder Blues

Google Nexus 4: Play Store debacle gives buyers the Backorder Blues

Summary: As if the mess that Google calls its Play Store yesterday wasn't bad enough, now many buyers are getting conflicting emails about 3-week backorders.

TOPICS: Google

I wasn't exactly generous yesterday in my descriptions of the Google Play Store as it melted down for users first in Europe and then in the US trying to buy a new Nexus 4. It was a mess of the first degree and I continue to wonder why Google, arguably the most powerful and successful Internet company in the world, can't seem to get e-commerce right. I was slightly mollified when I, like many other hopeful buyers, managed to push through an order well after other news outlets were reporting that the phones had sold out. It still wasn't a user experience to write home about, but at least a bunch of us got our phones, right?

According to our backend analytics here at ZDNet, almost 40,000 people read that article, telling buyers not to give up just yet. I received elated emails and tweets from people thanking me for the article and telling me that they had also finally been able to order their phones.

So to anyone who read the article, jumped back on the Play Store, and bought yourself a Nexus 4, I'm sorry. Because, most likely, you got an email today much like mine:


A lot of people who didn't read my article also are receiving this email today instead of the expected UPS tracking number and shipment confirmation they were expected. So now it's time for a rant.

Hey, Google! What the hell??!?! Honestly, I'm not upset that  that the phone is in huge demand. I'm not upset that they sold out far faster than expected or that they just didn't have enough supply. That's great for Google, great for Android, and great for wireless in the US where carriers have a stranglehold on the market. I'm freaking thrilled, in fact, that the market is embracing a new model for buying phones and sticking it to the carriers who have been totally ubstructionist to updates and have, in many ways, crippled Android over and over on phone after phone.

I'm angry because this is bloody Google - You'd think they could figure out how to handle peak loads and ecommerce at least as well as Apple. Google locates their datacenters near hydroelectric dams for God's sake so that they can access enough power to keep the world searching, to process the 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, and to crunch enough data to automatically give me directions to my various destinations as I hop into my car for an appointment.

And yet Google couldn't switch from "Ships in 3-5 days" in the Play Store to "Sold Out" several hours after their stock had been depleted. Google didn't know the difference between "Coming soon" and "Sold Out" and actually let people continue buying phones long after they had all been gobbled up.

Google didn't have the sense to limit numbers of purchases to one or two per household and the situation was exacerbated because the miserable excuse for a storefront that they call the Play Store was such a disaster at peak load that people were buying two or three phones accidentally.

Google has enough information from the nation's aggregated searches to track influenza outbreaks faster and more accurately than the CDC and yet they didn't anticipate demand for a $300 unlocked superphone running the latest version of Android. Gee, Google, do you think a few people might want one of those? They certainly knew I did based on the search and social data I happily and consensually share with them every day through my Google account.

Google can track the movement of illegal weapons worldwide better than our own government who should really be in a position to know about the weapons trade. And yet, when I sent an email today checking on the status of my order, just moments before I received that backorder email, the automated response cheerily told me that my phone should ship today and that I would have a UPS tracking number by tomorrow.

Why is this so damned hard for a company that is probably better than any other at processing data? Why, for a company that pioneered large-scale failover and redundancy and can shift literally petaflops of processing power among its various datacenters worldwide, could it not handle demand for a phone? Have you ever gotten an email from Apple saying, "Gosh, so sorry, we didn't think many of you would actually want a freaking iPhone so we didn't bother scaling our ecommerce systems or building a kajillion phones, so even though we told you that you got one, we were wrong so now you'll have to wait a while"? No, probably not.

Google finally discovers the secret sauce for Android and turning the wireless industry on its ears only to be derailed because its online store choked. Really? Seriously? Because Google didn't have the scalability or computing muscle to handle a spike on a few of their several hundred thousand servers? Because there weren't any Google engineers smart enough to figure out a better way to do ecommerce? Despite being able to auction millions of ads in real time? Really?

Ridiculous. Just ridiculous. Google, if you're listening (and I know you are, since you already know virtually every move I make), please go buy a company that knows how to sell things on the Internet. There's one or two (or 100) that do it fairly well.

Topic: Google

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Thank You

    I am one of those who received the dreaded Back Order email also. I just want to say Thank you for writing this article. Hopefully Google is listening.
    • What it would be called

      Would they be called Googlemart, or Walgle or how about Goomart. Good thing I am not in marketing or branding.
  • Online Store

    Hey Google,.. just a thought,... Buy Walmart! ;),... ;),.. they seem to know something about online retail. They are already selling phones. And it would make a really cool headline.
    • Walmart

      Really, you think Google is capable of buying Walmart??? Walmart is the third biggest company in the world.
      • Walmart?

        Remember: Worldcom bought MCI, even though it had only 4.8 billion in revenue (MCI at that time had about 18.5 billion). Guppies really can swallow whales...
        • Big difference

          Walmart is very successful and profitable company that is not violating monopoly laws.

          On the other hand, MCI was the bastard child of AT&T born after a divorce forced by the FCC.
  • Very Annoyed

    I just sent Google an email covering all the above mentioned points and more. This whole disaster is of their own doing.

    They didn't allow preorder they tried to build buss and have us all climbing over each other to get one of their phones, now they are going to have to suck it up and take the flack.

    I suggested they should have just listed them on ebay, at least they wouldnt have sold what they didn't have.

    I don't expect to get any sensible answer from them but I am annoyed they managed to con me in to creating a Google wallet on false pretenses.

    I worry about this, they seem as capable of running a sales company as the last head of the CIA was of keeping a secret.
    • Agreed on Google Wallet conspiracy

      I have been resisting previous attempts by the PlayStore to get me to hand over my credit card info; free songs & albums would have never worked for me!

      The Nexus 4 was a different beast and I forked over the info with nary a thought. Perhaps that was the entire rationale for providing a subsidized handset. I can now order stuff via the PlayStore with the same ease as on Amazon and am more likely to do so now that they have my credit card.

      My story has a happy ending..., I did get my order in - inside that fabled 15 minute window and the two phones I ordered just arrived. Now I have to go get me a SIM card. Perhaps, they have one in the PlayStore :)
  • I have no problem waiting for my nexus 4

    anything good is worth waiting for.......
    Over and Out
    • You got it, it's worth waiting for.

      If you don't like the wait, buy a Microsoft phone if you can find one. There's no one standing in line for one of those.
  • Well said

    This is exactly how I feel about the whole debacle. Well said Chris. I didn't even get a chance to buy a Nexus 4. I signed up for the email alert and nothing ever showed up in my Gmail account. By the time I realized they were on sale they were long gone. I seriously don't see the problem with pre-orders. This would give Google a good indication of how many phones they need to make. I think that they got burned on the Nexus One back in 2010. Google had a warehouse full of them expecting them to fly off the shelf -- but, the buyers weren't there. They ended up with a ton of left over phones that nobody wanted. But, seriously Google: PRE-ORDER! Let me check out and buy the Nexus 4 now and then send me an email telling me when you expect them to ship. I'll wait. (I'm waiting already) But, more importantly, I'll feel good about waiting. Right now I just feel pissed off and upset that you guys screwed up this launch.
  • Thank you.

    I couldn't have said it better myself. Google needs to get their ecommerce crap together!
  • Constant Refresh

    Great article / rant. While I think it is a little crazy to get very angry over this, Google does deserve a fair amount of criticism of it's 5 year long entry in to retail. A company of the size and capital of Google should be putting much more thought and human resource into it's direct to customer effort if they want people to keep coming back.

    I'm sure Google threw A LOT of back-end server resource to the Play Store when it went on sale, but the problem was with hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, incessantly refreshing their browsers every 2 seconds. In an effort to see the "Coming Soon" label replaced buy a "Buy Now" label, Google's customers effectively became Google DDoS'ers. No amount of scalability, even at Google, could handle that well.

    I also wonder why no pre-orders or at least a system that did not encourage buyers to keep requesting a single page over and over?? I am also a little saddened that Google could not have predicted this response with all of the analytics and statistics at their disposal.
    • Yup, pre-orders could have saved the day

      I don't buy the DoS line of reasoning, though...4.7 billion searches a day, 350 million Gmail users sending who knows how many messages, 850k Android devices activated every day, instant translation between 64 languages, real time voice recognition and natural language processing (and the list goes on) and Google can't handle a few million (max) people refreshing their browsers? I wonder how many people refresh their browsers on when a new product is being launched and they're waiting for the "Updating the Apple Store" message to go away?

      Honestly, a soft-launched pre-order system would have done wonders here. Of course, Google has enough data and analytics at its disposal that it probably could have just charged the most like buyers $300 automatically, sent them their phones, and everyone would have been happy :)
      • Siloed

        Based on my searches and clicks across the web, Google probably knows I want the 16GB version so they could just deduct the $350 from my bank account ;)

        I would think all of the back-end infrastructure for all of the different Google services mentioned are necessarily siloed. I would not expect the Play Store to run on the same servers or even in the same data centers as Gmail, search, maps, voice and the like. The infrastructure for the devices sub-section of the Play Store is probably even separate from the Android apps, music and books. I think it is possible that those in charge vastly underestimated the response on the 14th and the devices part of the Play Store got overwhelmed without having the proper server allocation and/or coding. We will probably never know specifics.

        You are right, the take-away is that this should have never happened at this point in Google's existence. They have the knowledge and servers to prevent this. What are they missing? A similar thing did happen a while ago at Apple but they took steps to fix it. Apple has had no major issues with their online store in the past few years even with some of the biggest product launches of all time.
        • Remember their First Attempt?

          I seem to recall Google's first attempt at selling their own phone (Nexus 1?) as being quite a bust, so maybe you should cut them some slack for having that experience and its effect on their expectations and fulfillment planning.
          • Love my N1

            Funny -- I love my Nexus 1, and it was the experience of buying direct and not having to deal with any carrier or any carrier branding (even the unlocked seem to have carrier-specific branding attached) that convinced me. This is also why I want a N4, which other than the fact they didn't build enough of them appears to be the logical upgrade.
  • Very Well Said

    I was one of those who waited for hours only to hear online it was already sold out while I still saw the coming soon sign! So here's a thought, since they've back ordered everyone anyway, open up the store so I can buy it with a notice saying it's on back order? So I can at least get my name on the list!

    This is embarrassing for Google and shows how little faith they had in their own product. It seems the only one in this world who didn't think this thing would sell well was Google! I want to be in that marketing meeting "Ya don't make many of these things, our marketing campaign sucked, we'll sell like 12 units." Well done Google planners!

    Google why not do a search on how much buzz the phone had on the net and how many people wanted it, try Bing next time, obviously Google was completely in the dark on this one.

    Either that or the point was to create an artificial scarcity like Apple has done for the last decade just to jerk around there customers in the name of publicity, and if that's the case, understand people are getting wise to this form of false advertising, and will leave Google's product line in droves.
    Jim Bilodeau
  • Hire.

    Google should hire more smart people! But NOT engineers! Maybe some online retail specialists. Maybe some cultural anthropologists. Maybe some of the predictive statisticians and pollsters from the Obama campaign. Maybe some supply-chain specialists.
  • Whaaaaa!

    Quit your whining, you little bitch. This article isn't professional AT ALL. You sound like a spoiled little kid that has to open your presents ON Christmas day when there are others that go without altogether. How pathetic.