iPhone fans fuming about preorder Web site woes

iPhone preordering system shut down, customers enraged

While it may not be on the scale of the BP oil spill, Apple and AT&T do have a public relations disaster on their hands as iPhone fans are furious about the collapse of AT&T's online preorder system.

While it may not be on the scale of the BP oil spill, Apple and AT&T do have a public relations debacle on their hands as iPhone fans are furious about the collapse of AT&T's online preorder system.

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The trouble started early for David Farber, a professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, who woke up before 6 a.m. yesterday to preorder and iPhone 4 on AT&T's Web site. After submitting his order, Farber found that the Web site stalled for a half hour before timing out. Farber then tried Apple's site and he found that it gave him nothing but an "oops message."

He continued trying to order throughout the morning, only to find that each time he'd get error messages. He began shooting off angry messages to his Interesting People listserv to see if other iPhone customers were having similar problems.

"What the hell is wrong with these clowns?" Farber asked at one point. "Can't they keep a web site running under load?"

Replies on Farber's listserv, as well as reports throughout the tech media, revealed that Farber was not alone in experiencing difficulties ordering the new iPhone. A few hours after Farber's initial rant, Gizmodo's Jesus Diaz was on the case, proclaiming the entire iPhone preorder process "a total disaster." 

Fellow Gizmodo writer Kyle VanHemert broke down the gory details of what he and other customers were experiencing in their failed attempts to order the new iPhone. "They just kept mashing on the 'submit' button and getting error after error," he wrote. "On the umpteenth try, it'd go through and then the next step, whatever that was, would get error after error. After a long time, it would finally go through. What's worse is that the first step of the process re-ups your two-year contract, so you can't walk away if you get fed up."

Lauren Weinstein, the co-founder of the People for Internet Responsibility advocacy organization, is similarly dismayed at both AT&T and Apple and said he found it amazing that the companies would be so unprepared for such an obviously large order volume.

"When firms of Apple's and AT&T's scale deploy an ordering system for a product that will obviously have high demand, heavy publicity, and is important to both companies' bottom lines, common sense alone dictates that the ordering system be engineered to be as smooth as possible," he says. "If companies choose to cut corners in their ordering system deployments, on the assumption that customers want their products so very badly that they'll put up with any level of Kafkaesque ordering hoops and errors, then that's another matter entirely."

The situation has gotten so hairy that AT&T has temporarily shut down the entire preorder process. To make matters worse, Gizmodo has documented three separate cases in which AT&T users would enter their names and passwords into the AT&T Web site while ordering their iPhones only to be taken to another user's account. In other words, AT&T users may have their private information in the AT&T database totally exposed.

But while most iPhone fans were furious with both Apple and AT&T, others were taking a more serene perspective on the matter. Norman MacLeod, the executive director at the Environmental Services Independent Peer Review Institute, says he anticipated that AT&T and Apple's Web sites would crash and thus decided to wait before ordering his new device.

"I recognize that I do not really need that iPhone immediately," he says. "Come next month, when all of those who are howling this morning have their new iPhones in hand, and have lower blood pressures than they do right now, I will stroll into my local AT&T store, pick up one of those new iPhones, and have a nice chat with the smiling AT&T representative who may or may not know what [they are] doing, and then walk out of that store with my new iPhone."

MacLeod does sympathize with early adopters who wanted to order their new iPhone as soon as possible. He says that there's really no excuse for AT&T or Apple to not have all their ducks in a row before offering preordering on the iPhone 4. But at the same time, he says experience has taught him to expect these things will happen.

"Frankly, I'm disappointed but not really all that surprised that AT&T and Apple combined to create another PR disaster," he says. "Having come to this particular game with unusually low expectations, I was fortunately able to avoid the frustration and aggravation that I'm sure many who wanted to be on the bleeding side of the leading edge suffered yesterday."

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