Magazine article Online

Using the Web for PC Support

Magazine article Online

Using the Web for PC Support

Article excerpt

Computer companies were among the first businesses to take advantage of electronic bulletin board systems. Hardware and software companies experimented with the technology early in the PC era to market and support their products. The techies who were buying their products were receptive, but usually not the average user.

As a veteran BBS operator, I can testify that, no matter how easy we tried to make our systems, the average PC user was never a steady customer. Much of this was due to perceived difficulties of PC telecommunications, plus BBS operating software that was often intimidating. Perhaps most important was the problem of telecommunications costs for both the host and user. Either a user had to pay long-distance charges to reach a remote BBS, or a host had to buy an 800 number to attract users from across the country.

A SECOND CHANCE

The World Wide Web, with its graphic browsers and geographically-irrelevant communications, has minimized the twin barriers of user-unfriendliness and telecommunications costs. The Web has given companies a second chance to reach out and touch their customers electronically. The customer support BBS has been reinvented and given new life as the corporate WWW home page. This means the Web has a wide range of low-cost, easily-accessible information for the PC user.

A STEP UP

Many Web sites maintained by commercial companies fulfill exactly the same functions as dial-up BBSs did five years ago--providing existing and potential customers with news, product information, pricing, technical support, documentation, software upgrades, etc. But Web users don't have to pay long-distance charges to access distant sites. At most, they pay a nominal monthly fee to their Internet access provider, usually much less than long-distance dial-up would cost. From the company's perspective, the nature of HTTP communications means that a Web site can offer a wide range of services and support many users with inexpensive equipment and telecommunications.

Computer companies (rightly or wrongly) already feel somewhat at home in the online world, and they are often pretty bold about trying an unusual, even quirky, approach to their home pages. They may have a slightly off-the-wall focus IBM's site at http://www.ibm.com), or unconvention layout (Microsoft, http:// www.microsoft.com), or they may try to tackle tough obstacles like non-English languages (Dell, http://www.us.dell.com/us). For PC users, the range of Web sites is an interesting tutorial on what can be done with the medium.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

What can you expect when you use a Web site to find hardware or software information? At their best, sites for computer companies can give quick access to current information about existing and forthcoming products, as well as critical technical support. At their worst, they can be inaccurate, confusing, and frustrating. It is important to remember that the Web is still in early infancy technologically, economically, and socially. All of us--users, hosts, information providers, access companies--are struggling to establish our roles, like mixed liquids of different densities trying to find their levels.

Because of the technology's immaturity, and the fact that every site is trying to outdo the others in glitz and attractiveness, there are very few standards for how information is arranged. As users, we face many of the same issues with Web sites that we have already experienced with Internet-accessible library catalogs. Every system is different and you have to learn the features and quirks of each to use them effectively. This can mean lots of time wasted wandering around a site searching for information that may not be there anyway.

Many sites have a Search button that supposedly helps you locate information anywhere in the site. But these comparatively primitive keyword searchers are not true indexes in the library/information science sense, and are usually no help if you're not exactly sure what you are looking for. …

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