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Preordering is broken, and here's how to fix the system

Let's replace the mad rush to click-and-buy hot tech products like the iPhone X with a fair, transparent lottery.

James Martin/CNET

If you're not happy with how the iPhone X preorder launch went, you're not alone. Twitter, Reddit and other social media forums were full of complaints from the moment Apple's preorders opened (or, for some people, failed to open) on Oct. 27.

Websites and apps stalled, crashed or hung; shopping carts mysteriously reset themselves; partner handshakes with carriers and financing companies failed. And that's on top of the entire iPhone-buying east coast of the US getting up at 3 a.m. to fight the online hordes. (West coasters had it easier, they only had to wait up until midnight.)

None of this should be surprising to anyone who has tried to order a hot product with limited supply, from past iPhones to the Nintendo Switch and NES/SNES Classic to the Oculus Rift. There's an announcement of a preorder date, everyone rushes the same website or websites at the same moment and in the end it's the overload of web traffic, rather than the limited supply of whatever you're buying, that really causes the most headaches.

Best practices, worst results

For example, I followed the suggested best practices for trying to order an iPhone X promptly at 3 a.m. ET on Oct. 27, by going to the Apple Store app on my current phone. Once there, adding an iPhone X to the shopping cart was the easy part. Attempting to confirm my details with my phone carrier caused timeouts and errors, and once I'd lucked my way through that, Apple's financial partner for the Apple Upgrade payment plan couldn't process my order. It eventually sent me a follow-up email asking me to start my order again from scratch.

Going directly to my carrier was little better -- before even logging in, there was a 15-minute countdown timer queue, and new phones kept showing up and vanishing from my pending orders list. I ended the evening with one iPhone X order, but this morning woke up to three -- two of the ones that vanished in-progress have now reappeared, and even 40 minutes on the phone with my carrier couldn't resolve which ones were real and which were phantoms.

The problem is not (entirely) the purportedly limited stock. It's the overloading of websites and online tools, with everyone flooding in at the same second. You're stuck in a traffic jam, and it's pure luck whether all the checking of boxes and intracompany communications required to simply purchase a new phone will work when you need them to. The only silver lining is that, at least as far as I can tell, no one's invented an iPhone-ordering sniper-bot yet, like the ones that plague eBay auctions and Ticketmaster sales.

There's got to be a better way, right?

I think there is, and it's simple, nearly frustration-free and -- if done right -- wouldn't help or hurt your chances of scoring whatever hot new gadget is in short supply. It would just make the process much less painful. Here's my modest proposal (no, not that kind of modest proposal): Let's replace the first-come/first-serve mad dash with a time-based lottery system. (No, not that kind of lottery.)

The sudden start of preorders for a hard-to-get gadget becomes a set preorder window shared by all. Now there's no reason for everyone to rush a website or app at the same time, which inevitably crashes it or causes slowdowns or errors. Just log in anytime over the course of 24 hours, 72 hours, a full week, whatever the agreed-upon term is.

For something like an iPhone, you do the same things -- attach it to your phone service and number, pick a payment plan, get preapproved if needed and other options -- but since there isn't an overload of concurrent traffic, your order information is much more likely to be properly stored and not lost to a handshake error or website crash.


Or you could just line up here...

Sarah Tew/CNET

Once the preorder window closes, the seller (Apple, Nintendo, Amazon, whatever...) applies a random number generator to the applications and assigns inventory, or the best ship dates, to the first X names drawn from a virtual hat. Sure, conspiracy types may insist the random lottery system is rigged against them, but surely even they'd agree the current system is just as untrustworthy.

You're at least as likely to get as good spot on the preorder list this way as you would from resubmitting the same order every time the website crashes at 3 a.m., or from watching a status wheel spin for 10 minutes trying to connect a handshake between Apple and your phone carrier.

Sure, there'd be a natural tendency to rush the gates on this preorder system, too, but if you wait until the next morning, or afternoon, you'd still get the same shot as everyone less, just with a lot less frustration.

Is this a perfect system? Probably not. But it sure beats what we've got going on now. Got a better idea? Let me hear it in the comments section. 

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