Google’s Play Store stumbles, trips and still somehow manages to ship a Nexus 4

I just got an email from Google’s Play Store, stating that my Nexus 4 is on its way here. I wasn’t sure my order really got through although I got a receipt. Here’s the story.

Yesterday morning I basically had the Play Store device page for the 16 GB Nexus 4 on a 30 second refresh. The day before Stefan Keuchel, PR spokesperson for Google Germany, told his followers on Twitter that the devices would start selling between 8:30 at 9:30 am. So it wasn’t too difficult to plan that hour into the morning routine. Just sit at your desk and look for changes on the site. Nothing too difficult if you’re using multiple displays to do multiple things at once.

So, at around 9:12 the sales went live, I added the device to my cart, went to check out, selected my address and credit card – I added it the day before, so I could be sure it wouldn’t be an issue – clicked on order and all I got was an error message. Great, Google’s shop failed in a bad way due to many people collectively decided to order some devices.

You’d think that a company like Google has its web services act together. Turns out they didn’t. All you got was some obscure error message no real person was able to decrypt. I clicked the back button, said yes to send the form again, and got a “Thank you for your order”. The receipt came in just a few seconds later. This all took round about one minute, as you can see in the order date/time on the delivery notice below.

Then I went on this site, updated and posted the prepared blog post about the Nexus devices being available on the (European) Play Stores. Only after that I realized that quite a few people ran into issues ordering or rather trying to order their devices. The whole thing was over in less than 15 minutes. First the Nexus 4 was sold out, which was followed shortly by the Nexus 10.

To add insult to injury, the notification emails that would tell you about sales going live, only arrived after the devices were sold out.

Failing gracefully? Not so much

Much has been written about yesterday’s experience at Google’s Play Store. At the same everybody and their mother is making fun of Apple for taking their whole store offline ahead of new devices. That said, usually after it comes back up with fresh goods, you can actually order them. The site may load slowly, you may see some error messages, but it usually fails gracefully.

Aside from WWDC tickets – which is a totally different category, as there are only so many tickets to give out – they also usually let people pre-order devices. They know how many devices they have/can produce, so they have an idea how long it will take to get one to you. And Apple tells you when that’ll happen. That’s what any reasonable store should be able to do, even the Play Store.

Maybe Google was unprepared and didn’t realize how many people would want their devices. After all, the previous models weren’t exactly known for mass appeal. Samsung even so far and called the Galaxy Nexus sales “miniscule” and according to PCMag the Nexus S 4G sold 512,000 units from Q2 2011 to Q2 2012.

Chances are we will never find out how many Nexus 4 devices Google sold during their first few days, let alone what they actually anticipated. Apple on the other hand gives you real numbers for pre-orders and actual sales. How’s that for being “open”?

Support by Python script

Another thing that’ll be interesting to watch is how Google’s customer service fares. Depending on how many people actually got or will get a Nexus device, Google’s idea of supporting their customers using a Python script won’t get over too well. People prefer to be able to call someone just in case. Good luck with that.

Apple – and other manufacturers – have an advantage again, they have their own stores or sell their devices via some 3rd party. It may be okay for the technology conscious people, but there are many who won’t like it. Once again it depends on who Google is targeting – or who they think they are targeting.

Overall, yesterday’s user experience wasn’t a great one and even the usual Google fans were disappointed and started pointing fingers at the guys and gals in Mountain View and their server farms. It shouldn’t have been an issue and yet it was.

They have quite a few things on their todo list now. First thing being: telling people they can just order their device now and don’t have to check the store over and over again to find out whether or not Google is taking orders again. Just take my money, tell me how long it’ll take to ship and then let me decide if I want to wait and order it. It really isn’t that complicated.

So, what did we learn in yesterday’s lesson: Even the big boys occasionally will be caught with their pants down – or web services crashing.