Image: Amazon site with blank spaces
Amazon.com
The usually stalwart Amazon.com experienced an unexplained outage on Tuesday, shown in this screenshot taken during the troubles.
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 6/30/2010 3:01:37 PM ET 2010-06-30T19:01:37

Yesterday afternoon I received a frantic call from my BFF Ree Hines. "Amazon is down!” she screamed into the receiver. “What’s happening?”

Like any modern journalist faced with a fact that needs checking, I immediately turned to Twitter — which, continuing the day’s Bizarro World twist, was operating just fine. Ree was right. A quick keyword search revealed others were suffering the experience.

"Is something wrong with Amazon?" read tweet after tweet. So shocked that stalwart Amazon was in turmoil, the one constant on the Internet since 1994, Netizens could no longer trust their own senses. Amazon’s home page was there, but image icons spun infinitely, unable to load.

Even tipsy Twitter superhero Drunk Hulk was flummoxed: "LOOK LIKE STUPID TWITTER WHALE DECIDE TO SHOP AT AMAZON TODAY!" he tweeted.

Customers could not make purchases. Authors could not check book standings. Amazon was "experiencing an issue," third-party merchants were advised at 9:47 a.m. ET on the site’s merchant bulletin board. The ensuing glitch shock in the Twittersphere revealed how much we’ve come to depend on the ultimate e-commerce portal. But what that glitch was, we still don’t know.

"How am I to buy a disparate assortment of goods at a variety of vendors via One Click checkout if Amazon is down?” Ree implored. She needed French pastilles candy, a food scale, Weed Whacker twine and sample chapters of Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic bio-engineered vampire novel "The Passage," available free for Kindle. And she needed them "now!"

Ree was finally able to make her purchase sometime after 3 p.m. ET, when Amazon resumed functioning normally. Technotica’s calls to Amazon were not returned. A site representative confirmed the problems with the Wall Street Journal, but did not explain what happened.

Amazon’s last notable outage occurred in June 2008 and only lasted a few hours. Given the outages we’ve come to expect from our other popular Web hangouts, such as Twitter and even Facebook, that’s pretty amazing.

"Amazon's availability over the past four years has basically improved continuously in a way that is unrivaled," Jesse Robbins, chief executive of website outsource company Opscode Inc., told the WSJ. Robbins, WSJ notes, was once known as "Master of Disaster," when he ran Amazon’s rapidly-expanding websites until 2006. "It is uncommon [for Amazon] to have a long-lasting outage that is visible like this," he said.

As to the lack of explanation, Barron’s writer Eric Savitz noted this morning that keeping customers in the dark isn’t just bad customer service, it’s bad for business. Some readers were concerned that the glitch may have leaked their personal information, he wrote. "I have no real reason to think that was the case, but it certainly seems odd to me that Amazon has taken what appears to be a defensive and closed-mouth stance on an issue so basic to its customers: the ability to simply use the site. Jeff Bezos, your customers deserve better."

It’s a reasonable request to make of Bezos, the site’s founder and CEO, but even if Amazon chooses to leave us in the dark, it's doubtful it will drive away those who have come to depend on its convenience.

Take BFF Ree. Today, with her orders placed, she happily awaits delivery of her French pastilles and lawn tool twine while reading free sample chapters of "The Passage" on her Kindle, which, as the website promised, she was able to "download in minutes." Why, it's as if yesterday's Amazon Apocalypse never happened.

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