Buying a software package is the start of a long-term relationship. A computer is only as good as the programs that run on it, and a full set of "business" packages can add half as much again to the cost of the machine. The test of this relationship is when things go wrong. Software companies operate telephone helplines, where calls are fielded by staff who know the programs intimately. The scale of these operations is large. Over half of Microsoft's 600 UK staff are involved in the software support operation. They handle 65,000 calls a month, from how to install a game to critical questions about operating systems.

However, the practice of offering free support is being abandoned by many companies as they move into the high-volume, low-margin, home and small business markets. Microsoft now offers 90 days' support with its desktop applications, from the date of the user's first call. After 90 days, the helplines will not accept calls from anyone without one of the company's add-on support services. These are not cheap. The entry-level package, Priority Desktop, costs pounds 175 a year and allows 35 calls - expensive given that the price for Microsoft's wordprocessor, Word, is around pounds 225.

This is an industry-wide trend, according to Tony Rees, manager of Microsoft's product support services. In the past, users paid a higher price for software and support came with it. The new policy is more flexible, he says. "The idea of the 90 days is that it covers the early life of the products. It does give a safety net."

Novell is taking a similar approach with its Wordperfect line. It plans to limit software support to six months of free assistance, again from the first call. Beyond that there will be an annual subscription option, but it will also be possible to pay by the query. Novell charges $25 for this service in the United States.

Ronnie Johansen, the company's director of software support in Europe, says that customers will accept the arrangements, especially as each software upgrade brings six months' support. "If you stay current with the product, you continue to have free support most of the time," he explains.

Not all publishers are following the "industry line". Intuit, which publishes accountancy and tax software, offers unlimited telephone support during office hours. Despite this, the price for its home and small business finance package, Quicken, is only pounds 49.95 including VAT. Alex Merrifield, Intuit marketing manager, says support is a key sales tool for Quicken. "It's one factor that differentiates ourselves from other software suppliers," he says. It also benefits the software designers, who have up-to-date feedback on users' opinions about the package.

As the PC becomes a volume consumer product, retailers are starting to provide support. Dixons offers a helpline, PC Plus, over premium-rate numbers, for customers. This specialises in getting users up and running - and highlights the difference between computers and, say, a washing machine. Washing machines usually work perfectly first time; computers do not.

There is an alternative to the phone call. If you have a modem and a connection to the Internet or CompuServe, it is worth checking the"user forums" covering different sorts of software, or looking at the World Wide Web page for the software company. You should find the answer to common problems such as conflicts where two packages will not work alongside each other.

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