up to fill the gap as software companies abandon unlimited support
by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published
in Business in Vancouver
, Issue #339 April 23, 1996 High Tech Office column
used to be
that a full-featured business program like Word Perfect or Lotus
1-2-3 would cost around $495 retail. Today's equivalent may retail
for a quarter of that price, or less--a good thing for everyone except,
perhaps, the software companies, or so you might think.
vanished along with high prices. Support, for example. Along with
that nearly-$500 price tag, that copy of Word Perfect included a phone
number for seemingly unlimited free phone support. Since it was a
1-800 number, Word Perfect Corporation even absorbed the long-distance
charges. That sort of support is a thing of the past (along with Word
Perfect Corporation itself, which was sold first to Utah neighbour Novell,
and more recently, at a fire sale price, to Ottawa-based Corel).
a problem with your software, where can you turn? Policies vary from
one software company to another, but in most cases the trend has been
to transform technical support from a cost of doing business to a
of new software are entitled to a limited number of free calls--perhaps
during a 90-day period from the time of the first call. And no more
1-800 numbers: you pay the long-distance charges, which can add up,
especially if you're left on hold for an extended period, waiting
to talk to someone familiar with your problem.
you're encouraged to purchase an extended support plan, or to call
a pay-by-the-minute 1-900 number for priority assistance. That's
a competitive market for technical support. An entire industry has
popped up, dedicated to selling you the help you need.
Corporation (DEC): it's offering so-called service-in-a-box. This
isn't aimed particularly at customers with DEC hardware, but promises
general PC & Mac software support over the phone, 24 hours a day,
seven days a week, with 1-800 numbers supporting more than 200
The cost is about $200 per year for a single user.
similar service. Customers pay a one-time $29 activation fee, and
then choose between paying $35-40 per call, $89-99 per month, or
per year (OS/2 and Windows 95 users are charged higher rates than
DOS/Windows users). (1-800-465-7999, ext. 516.)
services let you
pay by the problem. Norwood, Massachusetts-based Stream
for example, encourages Windows users to post their questions via
CompuServe (Go Priority). If it can't resolve your problem within
five days, there's no charge: otherwise, a solution will cost you
either US$30 or US$60.
is a recent startup, with a 1-800 number promising users that they
can "dump the manual and talk to a real person." Callers are charged
$3 a minute, with a two-minute minimum, and there's no charge if the
technicians are unable to be of assistance. When I called recently,
a real person answered on the second ring, and seemed knowledgeable
about dealing with common IBM-type problems. Crisis Line can be
on the Internet at www.netbox.com/pccrisis/, or at 1-800-828-4358.
pressing problems, or less need for hand-holding, there are other
alternatives. There's the ever-growing range of software books, for
example, a trend abetted by the tendency of software manuals (never
very readable at best) to shrink away to virtual non-existence--another
cost-cutting measure by software companies. For example, Stream
having worked uncredited as one of five companies contracted by Microsoft
to provide Windows 95 phone support, has put
a book, Windows 95 Answers, published by McGraw-Hill Osborne.
It promises answers to the top 300 or so technical-support questions.
Stream has also released companion volumes for DOS and OS/2. (Mac
users, presumably, don't have technical-support questions.)
such as CompuServe or the Internet can also provide free answers if
you know where to look. In addition to the official Web sites
by the big companies, there is a growing number of Web sites with
decidedly unofficial, and often more honest, problem-solving
Or try posting a question in one of the thousands of Usenet news
But make sure that you've checked first to see if it's already dealt
with in the group's FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) posting:
you risk a flood of abusive responses pointing you to that document.
have access to
a free local bulletin-board system, check out its message groups.
These circulate worldwide through a volunteer network called FIDO,
and while they are slower than the Internet, they can be more helpful,
as well as more tolerant of newcomers.
From free to
there are ways to get help: just don't count on quick, free and
support from your software vendor any more.