Home Computer: The way it was for Kathleen Turner: Andrew Brown looks at the often idiosyncratic benefits of seeking assistance from on-line support systems

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The Independent Online
IF YOU HAVE a modem, it is easier to fix almost everything else that can go wrong with a computer. This is just as well, considering the number of things that can go wrong with modems and communications software. None the less, the support provided by most big companies for their products 'on-line' - on computer information networks - is often the best way there is of getting help, particularly when using a portable on the move without to access the usual several hundredweight of manuals.

This is because you are asking questions of an audience which consists of both users and makers of the software. Large programs such as Word for Windows, one of the leading word processing programs, are so complex and their users' needs so various, that there are bound to be unexpected and undetected glitches in the finished product. These should not be crucial. In reputable products, they are not. But it is almost certain that, whatever program you buy, you will sooner or later want to do something simple, obvious and apparently impossible. That is when you need help and the two usual sources may be of no use: your handy friend - you did remember to get one with the computer, didn't you? - may not know the program you use; and the company's telephone support help-line may be too slow, too expensive, or simply unable to understand the problem.

Using a modem to get help can combine the best features of those two methods. And if the answer to your problem is to get hold of an updated version of the program, a modem will often let you 'download' that too.

The first thing to know is where to ask. The best place for technical support is generally the Compuserve network, because most large American software companies maintain sections or forums there for customer support with full-time staff members reading and responding to complaints.

However, the Cix system, based in Surbiton, can be helpful and will usually be cheaper. There are relatively few manufacturers on Cix. The help you get there will be from other users. In some cases this does not matter too much. Often users know more than manufacturers, especially about the problems that arise when product A refuses to work with product B. You know the makers will simply blame each other for the mess. Another user might tell you how to work around unpredictable reactions between different bits of hardware and software. If you have stumbled on an obvious landmine, there will be plenty of people to set you right.

The difficulty is knowing when a landmine was obvious. To take one perennial favourite in the Word for Windows 'conference' on Cix, if you write 63,000 words of your humorous novel about an ambitious woman's rise through the ranks of a theological college and ask how many there are (words that is), the program will reply truthfully 63,000. If you add a 2,000-word sex scene and then ask where you have got to, the machine will tell you have written 1,000 words. When it gets to 64,000, the counter rolls over like a car's odometer. This is what computer users call a bug, or promotional literature, a 'feature'.

You will not find an easy or effective way around the problem on Cix, because there is not one. But you will learn that many other people have stubbed their toes on it before you.

There is another and equally irritating flaw in Lotus AmiPro, which is that it will not easily replace two carriage returns by one. This is something which anyone who edits a file originally typed with double spacing will want to do. The program will happily replace all instances of 'homeopathy' in italics with 'claptrap' set in large yellow bold type. But two carriage returns one after the other are more than it can comprehend.

Inquire about this on the Lotus support forum on Compuserve and you will not only be greeted with howls of gleeful recognition from everyone else who has had their carriages returned intact: you will also be directed to the two ways around the problem.

So far as I know both are only available by modem. This is because they involve 'macros': little routines written in the programming languages which come with all large modern programs that allow really dedicated people to customise their programs until they do difficult and really pointless things.

I have myself written and stuck on Compuserve a word-count routine for Lotus AmiPro which plays a fanfare of trumpets when the target length of an article is exceeded. I stole all the clever bits from a similar program that Mike Hardaker, one of our regular writers, wrote for Word for Windows and put on Cix.

Someone will no doubt steal what I wrote and change the fanfare to Kathleen Turner asking lasciviously 'was it as good for you as it was for me?'. It hardly matters.

Now, these trivial little add-ons are something that you either do not need at all, or will find very useful indeed. They need not be trivial, either. Complete lawyers' billing systems have been written inside word processors and offered on information networks to the world for a small fee. By the time you reach that kind of depth of 'support', you find yourself happily chasing solutions to problems that you never knew you had.

But in the meantime, there is a great deal of expertise out there. A quick peek at the Microsoft Word for Windows support forum on the Compuserve network shows that there are 616 questions and answers readable at the moment, on subjects ranging from the printing of envelopes to putting watermarks on the paper.

There are a further 400 or so files available for downloading, so if you ever need to get your documents formatted in the house style of the American Psychological Association, you now know where to look.

Jargon buster: On-line support

Communications software: Computer program that controls the sending or receiving of information usually via a modem.

Download: To load data or a program stored on a network on to a computer that has access to the network.

Forum: A service on a computer network dedicated to interchanging information on a particular subject. Network customers can read messages stored in the forum or conference and if it is an open 'bulletin board', add their own comments to other participants' questions or put their own questions to be answered.

Help-line: A telephone service run by a computer company to answer queries on its products.

Modem: (modulator/demodulator) a piece of communications equipment that enables a computer to transmit or receive information over a telephone line.

Network: A group of computers interconnected by cables, telephone lines or other communications links.

On-line: When a computer is linked into a network via a modem and can interact with it, it is said to be on-line.

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