Thinkpad: Cancelled

So, last week (12/15) I ordered a bright, shiny (ok, that's meant to be figurative) new IBM Thinkpad X31. Loaded it up with all sorts of goodies (I briefly considered the implications of owning a laptop with more memory and disk space than the entire mainframe complex I worked on when I first joined IBM, but that passed).

Key thing to me was getting it before the end of the year, or at least IBM billing me for it. Now, IBM is an honorable company, and doesn't bill before the product is shipped (at least not Thinkpads).

Tax deduction, see?

Now, when I configured everything I had no expectation that it would ship the very next day, after all this is IBM we're talking about. I'd even be happy with it shipping in under a week. As I did the configuration online there was every indication that all parts were available (and though I loaded it up, nothing I added was extraordinary: the 40Gb drive instead of a 20, 1Gb of RAM instead of the default 256Mb, etc).

My expectations were...a bit too high.

I received an email confirmation of my order a few minutes after placing it. The confirmation listed several items as "IN STOCK" and a couple as available within two weeks. Two weeks would be pushing it but...then my eyes rolled over. Microsoft Windows XP Professional? Which, in theory at least, is preloaded on the drives? 2-4 weeks minimum.


Now, maybe since I left it takes longer to copy bits from a drive image to a drive. Or, perhaps the units are in Guadalajara, but the employee doing the work is in Bangalore, and the data transfer is using SNA over RSCS. I don't know, but it seems really odd for the operating system to be the major delay, and a possible four week delay at that.

I decided to chill and let the order wind its way through IBM's systems for awhile.

Last Monday I figured I'd check up on my order and used the handy "Order Status" application at Now, the first couple times I tried to use it I got nothing but time outs or proxy errors. Seems the orderstatus application uses proxy-pass, something I'd relied on many times on What I found curious when it finally worked, was that it was a Cold Fusion application. Through a couple anonymous sources I've learned that this isn't even run by IBM.

IBM can't give order status itself on orders on its own web site?


Anyway...I pulled up the order status and a couple items had cleared, but the ship date was now set for January 15, 2004 and Windows XP was still listed as the major block on shipment.

Of course, there is no option to buy a system without an operating system.

That evening (the 22nd) I used the contact form on the Order Status page to send an inquiry, basically amounting to: is 1/15 the hard ship date or is it likely to ship earlier?

The next day (the 23rd), having received nothing in reply to my inquiry (which I'd assumed went to a dedicated processing queue and not the amorphous glob that is Contact IBM), I called the 888 number and guessed my way around the VRU until I reached something vaguely with ShopIBM.

The guy was quite polite, took my details, and confirmed that the ship date would be January 15, 2004. At this point I decided I'd cancel the order. If I'm not going to get any benefit out of it for a month I might as well wait until the new year to see what IBM announces at Lotusphere (or Partnerworld).

Cancelling was not a problem, though I found it curious that the phone person had to confirm my cancellation with a sales representative (curious to have a sales representative involved in what had been an online only order).

Another oddity: IBM cannot provide a cancellation number. Ie, I have no written indication that the order has been cancelled. No email, nothing written, and no number (cancel a US$300 hotel reservation and they will give you a cancellation confirmation number, cancel a $2500 computer order and...bzzt).

But, the order was cancelled.

And, the fun continued.

See, later that evening I received an email acknowledging receipt of my inquiry from the night before (over 24 hours later) and that it would be processed the next business day (the 24th, Christmas Eve).

The 24th passed as did the 25th with no followup email, as I expected.

On the 26th I received another email re-confirming the ship date as being January 15, 2004 for my order.

That is, for the order I'd cancelled four business days earlier.

Left hand? Right hand?

Now, the sad bit for me for this story is that in 1998-1999 I and my colleagues had our lives thrown for a loop by Gerstner's reaction to a piece in InfoWorld about buying computers online from IBM. To be brief: the experience sucked. Gerstner's response, again in brief: fix this, now.

We spent several months putting together what became known as v9: Bullseye. This was a massive IBM-web-wide redesign of epic purportions. It was also the first major redesign undertaken by our group as part of the Corporate CIO organization. Huge, huge effort. Most of the hard work was done by Alex's UE team. My team did a lot of bizarre techie work to support staging the redesign (gluing together multiple "stage" sites across the internal intranet in such a way that content would not need to be rewritten to put the mess into production). Probably other stuff I've forgotten as well.

Anyway, it was all window dressing. We knew it was all window dressing. I'd assumed that post-Bullseye some effort would be done to kick PSG (now PCD?)'s tail and drag it kicking and screaming into the modern age of build to order.


Then: you couldn't get a complete tally of what the order would cost because, although net.Commerce, IBM's premiere e-commerce application, supported all sorts of tax calculations to determine the exact sales tax for your shipping location, someone in IBM decided it wasn't good enough for IBM to use and that that work had to be done somewhere else in IBM's internal systems.

As well, you couldn't get real-time inventory. Near-time inventory (I believe within 24 hours) was possible, but certainly not real time.

Today: well, the inventory thing obviously still doesn't work. I wouldn't have spent an hour fighting with the custom configuration site to build the sytem I wanted had I known that Windows XP Professional was so difficult to come by. And I'm not quite sure about the pricing. I have to admit, I was so tired of dealing with the system that by the time I finished configuring the order and submitting my credit card details, I don't remember if it gave me a complete total that juved with what I received in the e-receipt.

I found the whole experience frustrating, on multiple levels. First, I really wanted a new system before the end of the year. After cancelling the order I checked a couple of other sites I've used (I used to use MicroWarehouse but they've been consumed by CDW and neither the prices nor selection warrant my time). No doing...

Secondly, what the hell did I blow several months for in 1999 if not to fix a portion of this problem. As I surf through today it's evident that much of the work that was done for Bullseye has been thrown away. One of the key cool things we had done for example was a unified URL structure for all products in the shop site so that Product A could link to Product B with a normal looking URL. That URL in turn redirected to the gorpy e-commerce URL. All gone.


You know, I've bought five computers online since 1998. Four of the five were IBM computers. None were bought from though. The best experience I've had was buying my iMac in 1998 from Apple. Pick your selections, enter your details, submit, confirm, submit. IBM today? Pick your selections, pick some more selections, clarify some selections, try to determine what the heck we meant when we list four variations with four prices and the same description. Enter your details. No, we really do need to know your height (ok, I exaggerate). Frustrating...I expected more from IBM in 1999 and certainly more today.

It's not a technical problem. It's an organizational and operational problem. IBM has not and does not want to confront the demon that is its own product ordering and configuration system. I could be completely wrong and there could have been some sort of other problem, but I expect that behind the window dressing things are run exactly as they were in 1999 (which was not much different from the way they were run in 1989).

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