Getting what you pay for: True tales from the tech-support trenches

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001. First published in Vancouver Computes, August 2001

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, adding an unpredictable mix of hardware and software add-ons, the results can be unexpected.

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 example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the then-industry standard Word Perfect cost $495. Not for an office suite, but for the word processor alone.

But for that money, Word Processor offered free phone support. Even 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 offer a limited amount of free support, now, in most cases, it involves a long-distance 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 service 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 days, a tech support representative will e-mail you. Free.

Even if none of these options are available, try sending a message to ? I?ve had some good experiences with e-mail support with small and mid-sized companies. With many free or shareware products, you may find yourself in communication with the person who actually wrote the program, such as Irfan Skiljan, creator of the popular free IrfanView graphics converter.

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 makes whatever printer you print from the system default. I searched the Microsoft Knowledge Base to find a way to turn off this odd behaviour. Several hundred hits, none of which seemed on-topic. But wait?I stumbled across the option to send a message to a real human. (Don?t ask me how?I doubt I could find it again).

First, though, I had to set up an account with Microsoft?s Passport Service which signs users up to be an online customer of a group of companies 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. Rest 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 knowing it.

IBM is famed for the quantity of information, downloads, and more available online for their extensive product line, going back to seemingly prehistoric 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 able to install a workstation operating system like Windows 95 or 98. Every time I tried, however, the Windows installation would hang during the first restart.

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 to Update Xpress CD. Aha! Get the latest drivers, right? They would mail the CD for US$15. I preferred to download a 240 MB CD image and burn my own.

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 could post a message on a discussion board (no one has posted there since last 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.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan