Roger Ridey: Beyond help(desk) - when will PC makers deliver real support?

'Can you imagine buying a new car if it had a 90-day warranty, or even a year? Me neither'
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The Independent Online

As someone who regularly receives e-mails and phone calls from readers who have had nightmarish experiences trying to get their wonky PCs repaired, I was not at all surprised to hear last week that the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is going to take a hard look at the consumer IT services market.

What was surprising was the fact that the PC repairman came third in the OFT's league table of complaints, behind cowboy builders and used-car salesmen. I'd have put my money on the guy holding the soldering iron and hardware manual being top of that particular list.

It can only be a good thing for the OFT to get heavy with retailers who use nothing short of scare tactics to sell their expensive extended warranty packages to naive PC buyers, and then fail to deliver the promised repair services when a PC stops working. But I have to wonder if the real culprits are being overlooked – the PC makers themselves?

For far too long, the PC industry has got away with murder when it comes to supporting the products they make. Most hardware comes with, at most, a one-year warranty; software, often just 90 days. What other industry has had the audacity to offer such limited support? Can you imagine buying a new car if it had a 90-day warranty, or even a year? Me neither. But shell out a grand or two on a new PC, and that's all you're likely to get.

Of course, you can pay a few hundred pounds and extend the warranty, but even then you'll still have the problem of actually getting them to fix your PC when it breaks down. This usually involves spending long periods on the phone, mostly on hold, waiting to get through to someone on the helpdesk who may or may not be able to tell you what's gone wrong.

It wasn't always like this, though. I remember having trouble with an Apple PowerBook about seven or eight years ago. I just picked up the phone and called Apple's headquarters in Silicon Valley. I was put through to a highly knowledgeable techie – since this was Apple, I imagined him to be sitting in a little room full of manuals and motherboards, probably wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, John Lennon spectacles and a ponytail. He patiently talked me through the steps I needed to take to fix the problem. Simple as that.

It was about five years before I needed to call a helpdesk again and I was amazed at how things had changed. Instead of that nice hippy in Cupertino, I had to have an annoying conversation with someone in "customer services" whose sole purpose was to ask for my "customer support ID number" and, if I didn't have one, to extract £50 from my credit card before putting me through to someone to whom I could describe my Mac's problems, and who then may or may not be able to help me fix it.

At some point, Apple apparently decided to change its support policy to one modelled on the US healthcare system. (For example, you can walk into a hospital in America holding your own severed limb and the first thing you will be asked is "do you have health insurance or a major credit card?")

Now, I fully understand that the hippy in Cupertino wasn't doing volunteer work and has to earn a living. Hell, I'd have gladly sent him a cheque a couple of months ago if I could have tracked him down and got him to fix my ailing but still under warranty iMac.

Instead, I spent about six weeks haggling with various people on the phone, having no less than three different "authorised Apple repairmen" come to my home and not only fail to fix it but actually make it worse by disabling the CD-Rom drive. Then having it taken away to be fixed, having them erase the contents of my hard drive, and having the machine returned to me with an ancient version 8.6 of the Mac operating system where once I had 9.1. Thus having to go through a tedious series of operating system upgrades, not to mention reinstalling all the applications and other files before my iMac was fully functional again.

I suppose I should be grateful that it was still under the retailer's free extended warranty (the main reason I decided to buy it from John Lewis), or I would have had to pay who knows how many hundreds of pounds for this pitiful excuse for support.

This was the first time I'd had such serious trouble with a Mac, but, judging from the e-mail I get, it's an all-too-common occurrence for Windows PC owners. All of which makes me think it's about time that the PC industry started taking customer support a lot more seriously.

With PC sales in sharp decline, Windows machines all being much of a muchness, and Macs being more expensive than Windows PCs, perhaps the PC maker who offers the highest level of support at the lowest price – that is, free – will be the one that not only survives but thrives in the current downturn. Maybe Michael Dell or Carly Fiorina or Steve Jobs or some other PC industry CEO will suddenly realise the long-term benefits of employing a large team of courteous, highly skilled, knowledgeable support staff (tie-dyed t-shirts optional) who can quickly diagnose and repair their hardware when something goes wrong.

Until then, feel free to keep sending me your helpdesk horror stories.