A few days ago, I had the opportunity for direct consumer interaction with three of the technology world’s biggest companies - Google, Microsoft, and Apple.
These were an oddly symbolic series of experiences.
It started with an email from Google Play, the search giant’s online store.
The Nexus 4, Google’s new marquee Android phone, was going to be available for Canadians to purchase online later that day.
It was big news. The Nexus 4 is the “pure” Android experience, and represented Google’s most direct response to Apple’s iPhone.
And it’s in very, very short supply.
So at the allotted hour, I clicked on the link in the email message and was taken to a Google Play web page that announced the Nexus 4 was “sold out.” But that’s cool. I’ve been following this particular meme on Twitter so I knew enough reload the browser page.
Again and again. For five minutes straight.
Until the “buy now” button magically appeared. Which I dutifully clicked.
Only to be presented with a page that read, “your shopping cart is empty.”
A dead end - no links to anywhere else from there.
So I click my browser’s back button to the Nexus 4 product page.
Reload, reload, reload. Buy now.
Shopping cart empty. Back.
Reload, reload, reload.
It went on like this for the technological eternity of 20 minutes. I felt like a little mouse scurrying through Google’s cruel maze, chasing a crumb of cheese, meeting dead end after dead end.
But I had to keep at it; I was now participating in the biggest-internet-company-in-the-world’s total flub of one of the most basic building blocks of the web: the shopping cart.
Any normal person would have quit long ago. But this was the online equivalent of a train wreck - I just couldn’t turn away despite the carnage.
And it only got worse as I gradually won my way through each step in the process.
Google Play wouldn’t accept the credit card number I was submitting. Until, after repeated attempts, it did.
Google Play kept forgetting the delivery address I was entering. Until, after repeated attempts, it did.
Google Play was unable to process my credit card. Until, after repeated attempts - I said screw this!
And walked away. Yes, even my otherworldly geek patience has a threshold.
Actually, I drove away. To West Edmonton Mall.
Where, whilst strolling down a concourse, I happened upon a peculiar sight crammed in between a cellphone junk-accessories booth and a lazy teenager hawking glow-in-the-dark heavy metal band T-shirts.
It was a few Surface RT tablets just sitting on a counter at some dreary looking little Microsoft booth in the middle of the mall concourse.
Which is weird, because the Surface is Microsoft’s very latest cutting-edge product. It’s supposed to be insanely, amazingly hot and popular.
But no one seemed to care about it. The crowd was passing by with barely a glance.
When I walked up, the sales rep behind the counter jolted to attention, desperately pleased to have someone - anyone - to talk to.
And we had a friendly chat as I played with the Surface.
But he was painfully green, literally fresh off of the Mall Rat Sales Rep assembly line which seemed designed only to indoctrinate its students into euphemistically referring to iPads as “other tablets.”
Truth be told, I liked the Surface, based on the bit of time I had to play with it. And there were a ton of them on hand for me to buy, were I so inclined.
But as my interest grew, there was a catch that the rep seemed compelled (out of what - guilt? Legal obligation? Brotherly love?) to communicate.
Next month Microsoft is releasing a new tablet, the Surface “Pro” with a faster processor, better software and double the storage space for, like, $100 more that the $600 base model Surface RT.
To which any sane person can only respond, “Well why the (expletive) would I buy this one now, then?”
And so I bid that poor sod farewell and strolled off into the throng of indifferent humanity.
Later that day, as the buzz of a sickeningly gratuitous consumer orgy wore off, a little voice at the back of my head reminded me of an administrative matter: I’d been having a bit of trouble with my iPhone lately and shouldn’t I get it checked out at the Genius Bar in the Apple Store?
It was 15 minutes until the stores were closing, but I figured it was worth a try.
So to the Apple Store I ascended, and humbly strolled into that bright, plain cathedral lined with pews of iStuff and crowded with its congregation.
Immediately to the left inside the door were more stacks and stacks of iStuff behind a counter marked “Express Purchase.”
A clutch of young people in red shirts were methodically anointing a line of automatons with shrink-wrapped boxes as they dutifully swiped alms into a machine to cleanse their consumer souls of seasonal obligations.
The process happened quickly. Between entering the line and leaving the store with a trendy white drawstring bag, barely three minutes would elapse.
It occurred to me then that this is, in a sense, our greatest achievement: the iSale.
Humanity can now retire, having fulfilled its earthly obligation to perfect consumerism.
After a brief wait at the Genius Bar at the back of the store, and an even briefer examination of my iPhone, a friendly “genius” drew a new iPhone seemingly out of thin air and bestowed it upon me without charge.
I signed an iPad screen with my finger and that was that. My problem was solved.
They opened the massive sliding glass doors for my exit - the store was now closed - and I slipped out of the Apple Store into the quiet, vacant mall.
Looking down at the lower concourse I watched as the Microsoft staff ferreted away stock from their open booth to some locked cabinet somewhere, like peasants putting away their bushels of fruit after market.
The next day I got a couple of emails from Google Play. The first said that they couldn’t process my credit card - would I like to try again?
The second congratulated me on my purchase of a 16 GB Nexus 4 and explained that I should expect to receive it in seven weeks.
That’s on the other side of Christmas, like, next February, right?
Andrew Robulack is a writer and consultant specializing in using technology and the internet to communicate. Read his blog at www.geeklife.ca.