Is Amazon Facing the Glitch That Stole Christmas?

To hear the folks at explain it, the two recent outages that took their main shopping site down for 15 to 30 minutes each, right smack in the middle of the day, are nothing to be alarmed about.

In attempting to explain the first spate of downtime, which came on the day after Thanksgiving no less, Amazon spokespeople relied on euphemisms like “bugs.” Unfortunately, the problem there was that they claimed to have exterminated these insects, only to have them crawl back into the system a few days later and repeat the process all over again.

The only consistent part of the Amazon story is that they have insisted repeatedly that the outages have nothing at all to do with heavier traffic. This seems to them to be the most important message: is not buckling under the pressure of thousands of new shoppers.

But that spin — who says only politicians can engage in spin? — ignores the results of the outages. Regardless of why, the fact that customers couldn’t access Amazon for up to a half hour at a time during the holiday stretch run should not be shrugged off by anyone, especially not by the e-tailer itself.

Out to Lunch

Both outages happened around noontime in Seattle, or 3 p.m. on the East Coast. Is that significant? Well, it’s certainly not a slack period for shopping, if the studies that have shown how heavily people shop from their desks at work is any indication.

There is no way to measure exactly how many customers tried but failed to get into Amazon, of course. But we know the number was in the thousands and we know it was more than it would have been a month before. Amazon, after all, again wears the crown as the most popular e-tail site, drawing some 54 million visitors during the first four weeks of November, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

However, those statistics should be cold comfort in Seattle, Washington. In fact, they should provide added frustration to the e-tailer. Its efforts to draw more customers are paying off at a time when analysts are waiting for any reason — any tiny reason at all — to say nice things about Amazon and help turn around the painfully long downward trend in its stock and the stock of almost all dot-coms.

Just the Flacks, Ma’am

Instead, what analysts and customers are getting are vague responses to questions about site outages. Guess what: Phrases like “internal computer glitch” do little to settle the stomachs of institutional investors.

Now I’m not calling for Jeff Bezos to come out and show us a schematic of the Amazon system, complete with arrows and charts. That would be overkill and of course, pose security risks, as would even a highly detailed explanation from the PR flacks.

Still, the absence of solid explanations leaves people wondering. What happened? Was it a one-time — OK, two-time — problem? Hardware? Software? A power cord yanked out of the wall? Human error? We simply don’t know. Conjecture rushes in to fill the vacuum created by a lack of facts.

Glitch Watch

The net result is that everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Amazon to go down again, maybe for a bit longer.

How much damage would an hour outage do? Two hours? I shudder to think what would happen if a shutdown occurred for any kind of extended period.

Now, I have no reason to believe more shutdowns will happen and every reason to believe that Amazon is doing everything in its power to prevent that. But has anyone heard Amazon say it won’t happen again? Of course not.

Chaos Theory Returns

There is always an element of unpredictability when dealing with complex systems — anyone who saw “Jurassic Park” knows that. And while the truth probably lies somewhere between “no problem” and utter chaos — think T-Rex stomping on a Jeep — any added element of uncertainty is too much at this time.

For its part, Amazon hasn’t said any more than it’s been forced to on the outages. They answer questions when reporters call, but have issued no reassuring statements and make no mention of their past problems to customers or visitors to the site.

Maybe it’s part of their plan. Customer will keep buying, no question about that. But they may also be asking some questions of their own. And Amazon should furnish some answers that don’t sound like spin.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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