Getting what you pay for: True tales from the
by Alan Zisman
(c) 2001. First
published in Vancouver Computes,
True tales from the tech-support trenches.
Face it, computer hardware and software are complex.
Vendor claims of
?user friendliness? abound, but products rarely work quite as we might
hope right out of the box. And when we start mixing and matching,
an unpredictable mix of hardware and software add-ons, the results can
A decade or more ago, there were fewer choices and
prices were higher,
but the real costs of tech support were built into the pricing. For
in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the then-industry standard Word
cost $495. Not for an office suite, but for the word processor alone.
But for that money, Word Processor offered free phone
the phone call, to their 1-800 number was free.
Since then, price wars have led to deep-discount
pricing for hardware
and software alike. While we all like low, low prices, something had to
give. In this case, it was free phone support. While many products
a limited amount of free support, now, in most cases, it involves a
phone call. And waiting on hold. And waiting.
Alternatively, there are options to call a 1-900
number, and have a
charge for the support added onto your phone bill. Or buy into a
plan, with an annual charge.
For many companies, tech support has been converted
from a cost of doing
business to a profit centre.
But many times your problem isn?t a life and death
emergency. Many companies
have a link on their website to support--. links to documents outlining
the solutions to common problems. Or discussion groups where users help
one another. Or a page where you can leave a message; within a few
a tech support representative will e-mail you. Free.
Even if none of these options are available, try
sending a message to
?firstname.lastname@example.org?. I?ve had some good experiences with e-mail
with small and mid-sized companies. With many free or shareware
you may find yourself in communication with the person who actually
the program, such as Irfan Skiljan, creator of the popular free
But my experiences with the online help of software
and hardware giants
have been almost without exception, frustrating and disappointing.
Take Microsoft. (Please!). I use Microsoft Works
version 4.5. Unlike
other software, if you have several printers installed, it magically
whatever printer you print from the system default. I searched the
Knowledge Base to find a way to turn off this odd behaviour. Several
hits, none of which seemed on-topic. But wait?I stumbled across the
to send a message to a real human. (Don?t ask me how?I doubt I could
First, though, I had to set up an account with
Service which signs users up to be an online customer of a group of
that pay fees to Microsoft for every sale the service generates. And by
default, it wanted to give me a Hotmail e-mail account.
Eventually, I got to send my message. The response? It
referred me to
a Knowledge Base article which acknowledged that Works 4.5 does this.
assured, though; it?s not a bug. It?s a feature. The designers meant it
to work that way.
Any way to turn it off? If there is, no one admits to
IBM is famed for the quantity of information,
downloads, and more available
online for their extensive product line, going back to seemingly
models. I have an IBM server, dating back to around 1997. While it runs
fine with operating systems like Linux or Windows NT, I hoped to be
to install a workstation operating system like Windows 95 or 98. Every
time I tried, however, the Windows installation would hang during the
IBM online lets you search by model, machine type then
model; in this
case, PC Server 330 8640 EM2. On the resulting page, there was a link
Update Xpress CD. Aha! Get the latest drivers, right? They would mail
CD for US$15. I preferred to download a 240 MB CD image and burn my
But when I loaded it, it announced that it did not
support my model.
So why the link on the webpage, IBM?
Eventually, after another long registration process, I
was able to leave
a message for a human. The response? My computer is out of warranty and
IBM doesn?t support Windows 9x on servers. If I want further help, I
post a message on a discussion board (no one has posted there since
February) or I could arrange for paid support.
Thanks for nothing.
I suppose, in the current economic climate, free
support is worth exactly
what you pay for it.