A helpline is a lifeline. If only software companies understood
At first, using the new CD-Rom drive (fitted to a standard Compaq Deskpro XL 566) seemed blissfully simple. The virtual reality promised by Dorling Kindersley was as remarkable as promised. You could wander through the virtual museum of Cat and Bird, mousing your way from room to room, in search of the next video or other item of exotic interest. My nine-year-old daughter and I were equally enthralled.

Until it all went wrong. Suddenly, the CD-Rom choked on an electronic fishbone. The computer's ample memory could scarcely be overloaded. And yet, something was badly wrong. The message stated clearly: "MMTASK caused a general protection fault in module IR32.DLL at 0003:13A9." It sounded fabulously baffling and alarming, like one of those moments in a science- fiction film when lights start flashing in the stricken spacecraft as the Real Crisis begins. When I reloaded the disk, it sometimes worked briefly again. But then it would splutter to a halt once more.

One tends to assume, in these circumstances, that one has done something foolish which caused the breakdown. I therefore soldiered on for a while, always thinking the problem would right itself. But it did not. Finally, I rang Dorling Kindersley for advice.

First question - had I looked at the Help file? Even I had thought of this. Unsurprisingly, it had been to no avail. Like all Help files, it contained nothing that you could possibly want to know, let alone anything that might Help. Then, the Helpdesk took notes on what had gone wrong - and came back, in due course, with a clear explanation (or rather, non- explanation, which was almost as good). It was, I was told, unclear what had caused the fault. But if I tried starting from scratch, by reloading the programme on to the hard disk, the problem might clear itself.

It did. Everything worked (almost) perfectly. Ever since then, there have been occasional blips - a video stops mid-frame or the programme freezes completely. But I now treat these problems like a dose of flu which the CD-Rom may succumb to - an irritation, but easily cured with a swig of electronic Night Nurse.

At first, I assumed my experience had been an unlucky one-off. After all, it seemed logical that such fancy new technology, once sold on the mass market, must also be reliable and generally compatible. Naive? In retrospect, I guess so.

Far from having been unlucky with Dorling Kindersley, it now seemed that I had been fortunate - I had got through to the helpline without difficulty and they DK returned my calls; they seemed eager to solve the problem.

My next experience was less happy. With a Fun School Five CD-Rom from Europress Software, everything started swimmingly. "Fun School Five successfully installed," the screen trilled. But whenever I tried to run the program, the screen went blank and the cursor froze. Eventually, unable to guess what disaster had befallen me, I tried ringing the helpline. "Tried" being the operative word. The line was engaged. And engaged. And engaged.

Eventually, I got through. The assistant had no suggestions of what might be wrong, but promised to phone back. He did not. Three days later, I rang back again (engaged, engaged...). The helpliner delivered a confident prescription for curing the problem, which involved changing the screen format. "That'll be fine, now," he declared, and wanted to hang up on me. It was not fine; he and his colleagues had no better suggestions, when pressed, and the CD-Rom still lies beside the computer - tempting and abandoned.

All of this, it now seems, is just part of a pattern. Gradually, I have lost part of my "me stupid, you computer expert" complex as I have come to realise that the chances of a CD-Rom working perfectly with a given machine are much slimmer than I had originally assumed. As one helpliner admits: "Any product released is now made by loads of different manufacturers. Inevitably, this causes all sorts of headaches."

This, it must be said, is frustrating, if you have just spent an average pounds 30 on the CD-Rom (in a ludicrously large box, while we're having a gripe) that you and/or your child have been dreaming of. It does not make for a wonderful Boxing Day, or any other day. It would be good if companies were ready to spend more money on properly funded helplines, with enough phone lines, people and expertise to answer whatever questions the punters may throw at them, enabling them to make the necessary adjustments as required.

It would be nice, too, if helplines were available at weekends, the only time that millions of computer-users (or their parents) are able to sit slaving over a hot PC. But helplines cost money, instead of raking it in. So don't hold your breath. Improvements are not expected.