When people encounter a problem with their PC, they often go to the Web and do a search to see if others have had the problem. If they are lucky, someone has found a fix and listed the steps on either a support document or within a user forum.
Now, they may have an even better option.
Over the past six weeks, Microsoft has quietly added a "Fix it" button to a few of the thousands of help documents on its Web site. When clicked, the computer then takes all the recommended steps automatically.
"If we know what those 15 steps are why shouldn't we just script it," said Lori Brownell, Microsoft's general manager of product quality and online support
The "Fix it" option is still fairly rare, showing up in around 100 different help documents. The effort is growing rapidly, though, up from just four such fixes when the program quietly began in December.
Microsoft continues to offer users the option of doing things on their own if they either don't trust Microsoft or just like being in control.
"We're not trying to hide anything," she said.
The first fixes included a number of common issues, including restoring a missing Internet Explorer icon to the desktop, how to enable the DVD library in Vista's Windows Media Center as well as what to do when encountering the error message in Street & Trips 2008 that "Construction information for routes could not be downloaded"
For now, Microsoft is having to go back and search its archives to see which of its problem solving tips can be automated. Eventually, it hopes to create the automated fixes at the same time the help articles are created.
Where it can, Microsoft is also adding the "Fix it" option into the error reporting tool built into Windows. Initially, all users could do when a program crashed was send a report to Microsoft. More recently, the system has started checking to see if there is any information on the issue. Next up, said Brownell, is offering the option to have the issue solved automatically.
Long term, the company has even broader hopes.
While it would like to just eliminate bugs and glitches, Brownell said that is not an attainable goal.
"We'd love for our customers to never have problems," she said. "We'll never ship bug-free software as hard as we try."
Instead, she said she is aiming for a day when Microsoft's products themselves will be able to spot problems and proactively offer fixes. As an example, she noted that in Exchange, it's a pretty safe bet that once one gets low on disk space, bad things will happen. Making sure that users take action before problems occur is an example where the company is headed.
Another example, she said, would be for Microsoft to be able to notify users if they are running two drivers that others have found to conflict with one another. Assuming the appropriate privacy safeguards were in place, Brownell said it would be great for the user to be alerted and offered a fix before a problem occurred.
That proactive world is still largely a vision rather than a reality. That said, Brownell said that the company is putting in place some of the plumbing necessary to make such things possible.
With Windows 7, Microsoft has added an "action center" that Brownell said offers the underlying capability needed to serve up fixes within the operating system. She said that she would expect some opportunities for that over the life of the product, though the current beta version of Windows 7 has few examples of that.
Personally, I'd just like to see the "Fix it" button extended to other areas of my life. I'd really like one that would make travel plans, fill out my expense reports and hire a plumber. That would make me (and my partner) much happier.
For what would you like to see a "fix it" button?
Fixing it with a single button
CNET News reporter Ina Fried tells editor Leslie Katz about Microsoft's Fix it button.
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