Waiting for Digital Godot

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There's something I don't understand. Actually, if you're a regular reader of this column you know that there are a colossal number of things that I don't understand, but I want to talk about one in particular today. The November 23, 2005, issue of The Globe and Mail, the newspaper that I read in physical form (I worry about the long-term effects of an overdose of electrons and think that print might be an antidote) six days a week, carried a brief article about the North American launch of Microsoft's new Xbox 360 video game console. It seems that people lined up, in some cases for days, in all sorts of weather at stores across the continent just to be among the first to get one.

Another source I found said that about 4,500 retailers across America opened at midnight to begin selling the consoles at very the instant of its official launch. Most of the stores had similarly long lineups. That's the part I don't get. Why would anyone, let alone thousands of people, put up with the inconvenience, hardship, and indignity of sitting out on the exposed sidewalk for hours on end merely so they can purchase the latest gaming gadget ahead of their neighbors, friends, relatives, and complete strangers? Haven't these people got anything better, like cleaning the lint out of their navels or trimming their nose hairs, to do? It would be terribly gauche to do those sorts of things out in public while queuing at a store.

One 19-year-old college student who had lined up at the doors of a mid-town Manhattan Best Buy store for almost 30 hours was quoted in the article as saying that, after finally getting the chance to buy it, he planned to play with his new Xbox all night long before heading to class in the morning. Gee. For his sake, I hope the material in the lectures he attended that day won't be on his final exam. Somehow, I doubt that his powers of comprehension and retention were operating at full strength after he completed his nocturnal adventures. Surprisingly, the student gave his name to the reporter. If I were the student, I sure wouldn't want anyone to know that I stood outside for well over a day to get a game console that I then played with all night long. If I were this guy's professor, I'd fail him for his poor judgment skills alone.

Oh, and just as I was getting ready to send this column off to the MC Press editor, Victoria, I came across an article in The Washington Post that prompted me to insert this paragraph and the next. It seems that 300 people, or more likely some portion thereof, outside a Maryland Wal-Mart Supercenter started a melee when the store manager decided to sell the Xboxes on a first-come, first-served basis rather than using the number system that the prospective shoppers devised on their own. These people had nothing better to do with their time while waiting, so I guess it makes sense that they would spend some of it coming up with a queuing system. Besides, you'd have to be a geek to be so devoted to a video game console, so devising a system probably came naturally to them. The long and the short of it is that it took 10 police officers to restore order. Who says geeks don't know how to have fun?

Look, I can't understand why people would join a herd of people milling around for many hours leading up to midnight when the great gods of retail will finally grant them permission to buy some new-fangled gizmo, so would I be willing to do that and put myself at risk of a bloody nose, broken limbs, and possibly some jail time just to buy a new video game gadget? Uh, give me a minute to consider this. No. No, I don't think I would.

Keep in mind that we're not talking about acquiring a precious, one-of-a-kind Rembrandt painting here. I could appreciate that someone would be willing to put up with a little inconvenience to buy one of those. After all, Rembrandt isn't painting very many new ones these days. (Just a hint to anyone inexperienced in buying art: If someone offers to sell you a brand new, original Rembrandt, you'd be well-advised to be a bit suspicious. If the signature is "Fred Rembrandt," you're not buying an original painting by the old master. The "printed on Kodak paper" inscription on the back is another dead giveaway. If you spot either of these signs, the multi-million dollar price that the seller has set is probably a tad inflated.)

I can almost understand why people would line up for as long as the Xbox 360 pioneers if, instead, they were queueing to buy a ticket to a one-night-only live concert featuring their favorite performer. After all, not to get too philosophical about this, all live shows are one-of-a-kind experiences since, being live, even if the performer will be coming back to your town to put on the same show sometime in the future, his or her performance, the staging, the audience reaction, the scent of the people sitting around you, the humidity, the temperature, and the chemical composition of the air in the theater—not to mention your mood and the other aspects of your life affecting you while in attendance—can never be duplicated perfectly a second time.

My use of the word almost when I said that I can almost understand the willingness to line up for such a ticket was well-considered. I still don't completely understand it. There is no one whose performance I would enjoy more than I would hate lining up for almost 30 hours in cold weather, some of it rain, as people did in front of a Manhattan Best Buy store before the Xbox 360 launch.

Here's the thing, people. You're not going to die if you wait until after the crowds diminish in a week before buying and playing with the new console. Sure, the nearest store may run out of stock by then, but I'll let you in on a little secret that the retail industry and game console makers would rather you not know: If the store does run out, it will order more, and Microsoft will be exceedingly happy to fill that order. True, you might have to wait a month or two if Microsoft sells off its initial inventory more quickly than it anticipated. Big deal. It's still not going to kill you.

Another sanity-saving alternative would be to surf the Web, find a store that has some stock now or will have some soon, order it online, and not worry about standing in line at any store. I know that's radical, but it's a thought.

Here's another idea: If you can wait for a year--yes, yes, I know that some people may require heavy sedation to put their cravings for the latest, greatest thing on ice for a year--electronic gadget pricing strategies being what they are, you'll almost certainly be able to buy it more cheaply than you can today. What's more, you won't have to line up and battle crazed crowds of game addicts to do so. Hey, it's not like your old console is going to stop working the instant a new model is introduced in the marketplace, no matter how much the stores and console makers might wish it were otherwise.

At least somebody got something worthwhile out of this nonsense. The Reuters photo accompanying the Globe and Mail article showed a number of happy, smiley people, including a beaming Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, at a Best Buy store in Bellevue, Washington. (Of course he was beaming. Thousands of lunatics were lining up across America for interminable periods for the right to pay lots of money to buy his company's stuff.) He was there to hand a customer the first Xbox 360 ever sold at that store. Now, Bill Gates' being there is something I can understand. The article didn't say, but I suspect he was allowed to jump the queue. And he has a few shares of Microsoft, so he had a vested interest in fueling the hype surrounding the launch.

The only person in the picture who was smiling more broadly than Gates was the customer who bought that first Xbox 360—in fact, he looked positively euphoric. What's up with him? According to the article, he took time off work to stand in line for more than three days in dense fog, all for the honor of forking over $1,058.47 of presumably hard-earned cash for the console ($400) and a bunch of games and accessories. Is this guy totally deranged? He took time off work and endured that much hardship just to be the first to buy one of these darned things. It's not as if he was rewarded for his efforts by getting it free. He still had to hand over the money. And I assume that he took some of his vacation time so he could spend those three days in line. Call me crazy, but that's not a vacation in my book. A quick trip to Europe or down south—that's a vacation. Visiting out-of-town friends or relatives whose companionship you enjoy would also count as one. Lounging around at home, watching your favorite DVDs, and reading some great books can also make for a pleasurable, low-cost holiday. But lining up to buy something that's going to be made obsolete in, at most, a few years by the next latest, greatest thing, is not a vacation according to any rational definition of the word.

Who was this inaugural customer? You'd think he'd have to be a geek to go through so much solely to be the first to get his hands on a new game console, wouldn't you? You'd be right. He's a programmer. What a surprise that is! Call the paramedics. I'm having a seizure due to the shock of receiving that little nugget of information. (If you haven't overdosed on sarcasm at this point, then those last three sentences didn't have quite the effect I intended.) Even though he's only 26 (yes, I've reached a stage of my life when I feel quite comfortable putting the word "only" in front of the age 26), I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that he can quote every line of every episode of every Star Trek series and movie by heart. On the other hand, between doing his job, standing in three-day-long queues, and playing video games endlessly, he might not have much time to watch Star Trek reruns.

Who's his employer? It's Microsoft, although not the Xbox division. OK, maybe there are two things I don't understand about this. I don't know about you, but if I were the chairman of a company and I found out that one of my employees had taken a few days off work just to buy a video game console—even if it were one made by my company—I'd fire him on the spot. "Hand in your employee card. Don't bother to come back into the office; we'll mail you your personal stuff. And you can forget about severance pay. Try suing us if you feel you must, but any reasonable judge will laugh you out of court after what you did. Now go away and enjoy your video games." And, if it were up to me, that would be it for him. Much to my amazement, the article didn't mention anything about that. Then again, the reporter probably didn't trail Gates and his employee after they left the store. Who knows what happened once they were out of the media spotlight?

I've got a small piece of advice for all of those people who lined up for all of that time, often under inclement conditions: Get lives. If I had one of my own I'd be happy to lend it to you as a charitable act. I don't, so I can't. But even though I may lead a lonely, shallow, empty existence, I still have absolutely no desire to fill it up by standing in line no matter what I'm going to get in return. I have far too much nose hair and navel lint to take care of first.

P.S.: Stalled again by The Washington Post. Just as I was about to hit the Send key to transmit this column to Victoria, my subscription to The Washington Post's email service sent me an article from its November 24 edition. (I'm in Canada. We get Thanksgiving out of the way in October, so I was working on November 24.) Guess what. According to the article, a number of people are experiencing problems with their Xbox 360 units, such as the device freezing after only a few minutes of playing. Boy, I'll bet those people are really happy about having wasted so much of their time to get one. Now, I'd better hurry up and hit the Send key before this tirade gets any longer than it already is.

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. He is also the author of BYTE-ing Satire, a compilation of a year's worth of his columns. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He is so adverse to queues that he won't even line up to see a Woody Allen film.

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