Perplexed in a world of mice and PCs

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Science Correspondent

The voice on the end of the telephone was patient but perplexed: "I've got the foot pedal working, but it doesn't seem to be very sensitive."

Foot pedal? Was the caller describing an electric organ? Fortunately, the person taking the call on the support desk for a computer maker realised that the "foot pedal" was in fact a computer mouse, the handheld device used to move a pointer around the screen.

Similar confused calls are expected throughout this week as computer- makers open their support lines to provide help to the thousands of people who bought personal computers as Christmas presents this year and spent Christmas Day and yesterday trying to understand the manuals.

Compaq, along with other makers such as Dell, IBM, and Apple Computer is offering telephone help to home computer users today and for the rest of the week.

Microsoft, which makes the best-selling Windows95 operating system, and which will be on about 90 per cent of new computers sold this Christmas, expects up to 1,000 calls today.

The anticipation stems from the fact that retailers have been forecasting record sales of PCs into the home this year. In the week before Christmas, Dixons was expecting to sell more than 10,000 PCs, and mail-order companies have reported excellent business.

"I think part of the problem is that the computer industry loves buzzwords, but the average person can't follow what they mean," said Sue Sorkin, a product manager at Compaq. "We have consciously tried to bring the technical level of instructions down. In fact, we have won some Plain English Awards for them."

"We're expecting the vast majority to be about Windows95 and how to configure games to run with it," said Microsoft's Steve Caulfield as the lines opened. "Let's be honest, we're not expecting many questions about [the financial spreadsheet] Excel." His staff of 18 will answer phones from 10am until 5pm.

A "multimedia" computer, capable of playing CD-ROMs and with full-colour screens, sound and a (handheld) mouse, costs about pounds 1,500. But setting it up so that the various components work to best effect is difficult, and has been known to defeat experts, let alone novices, who may find abstruse error messages such as "This program has been terminated because it attempted to perform an illegal operation" more than a little perplexing.

Compaq, which has never before offered telephone support on Boxing Day, expected thousands of calls -- "about the same as a normal work day," according to Ms Sorkin. "But the problem is that the more that you extend the facility, the more people call. The volume of calls from the consumer market is very high." But at least the volume coming from those confusing footpedals and mice should be smaller.