Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    A new industry springs up to fill the gap as software companies abandon unlimited support programs

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #339 April 23, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    It 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.

    But other things have 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).

    So if you're having 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 profit centre.

    Typically, purchasers 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.

    After your 90 days, 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 created a competitive market for technical support. An entire industry has popped up, dedicated to selling you the help you need.

    Take Digital Equipment 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 applications. The cost is about $200 per year for a single user.

    IBM offers a similar service. Customers pay a one-time $29 activation fee, and then choose between paying $35-40 per call, $89-99 per month, or $499-599 per year (OS/2 and Windows 95 users are charged higher rates than DOS/Windows users). (1-800-465-7999, ext. 516.)

    Other services let you pay by the problem. Norwood, Massachusetts-based Stream International, 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.

    PC Crisis Line 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 contacted on the Internet at, or at 1-800-828-4358.

    For those with less 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 International, having worked uncredited as one of five companies contracted by Microsoft to provide Windows 95 phone support, has put together 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.)

    As always, on-line services such as CompuServe or the Internet can also provide free answers if you know where to look. In addition to the official Web sites maintained by the big companies, there is a growing number of Web sites with decidedly unofficial, and often more honest, problem-solving information. Or try posting a question in one of the thousands of Usenet news groups. 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: otherwise, you risk a flood of abusive responses pointing you to that document.

    If you 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 pay-as-you-go, there are ways to get help: just don't count on quick, free and unlimited support from your software vendor any more.

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