Need your PC fixed? Get ready to pay up

Demand for PC support is booming, even as retailers and PC vendors pare down standard warranties. Chart: How services stack up

Technology is a wonderful thing, when it works. Just as cars run reliably but lawn mowers never start, many people wonder why humans are capable of creating amazing technology but can't make PCs that average people can understand.

As a result, demand for PC support services is booming even as retailers and PC vendors pare down their standard warranties. Fed up with pleasant but unsatisfying support answers, PC users are increasingly willing to pay for support from those companies. Third-party PC support is becoming big business, with Best Buy aggressively promoting the services of the Geek Squad and vendors like Dell jumping to provide their own touch.

It's not completely clear how big the market is for premium consumer support, said Matt Healey, an analyst with IDC. However, the overall market for Windows support last year was $7.8 billion, which includes everything from corporate server support to consumer PCs. It's safe to say the market size for consumer support measures in the "billions," he said.

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Geek Squad grew out of that tried and true method of PC support: the starving college student. Founder Robert Stephens, or as he prefers to be called, chief inspector, started the company in 1994 and hasn't looked back. Geek Squad now has almost 12,000 "agents," about 2,000 of whom make house calls, while the rest work in Best Buy's stores, or "precincts."

Geek Squad charges flat rates for all its services for both Windows and Macs, regardless of how long the service takes. For example, an operating system restoration costs $99, which includes erasing the "blue screen of death" and updating the PC with patches and antivirus software. The remote phone service is available 24 hours a day, and customers can also drop off systems at Best Buy stores nationwide for service.

But Geek Squad is known for its white-shirted special agents that show up at a customer's house in the GeekMobile. Customers are likewise charged flat rates for services such as setting up a wireless network, updating antivirus software, or installing new memory.

Other companies are experimenting with remote services, where the technician never has to enter the house but can diagnose many common operating system problems over a high-speed Internet connection. One such company, PlumChoice, says it can solve around 85 percent of common PC issues through its online service, said Ted Werth, founder and chief executive officer of the company. PlumChoice is the support partner for Circuit City's stores.

To use the service, a PlumChoice customer creates an account on the company's Web site, and then downloads a piece of software onto their PC that lets a PlumChoice technician take control of their computer. The program requires a key unique to each session to allow the remote technician to take control of the system. From here, the technician can walk the user through the diagnostic procedure over the phone, or just quickly find out how long it's been since the user downloaded a Windows patch, Werth said.

"The hardware has become more mature over past years. It tends to have fewer problems. People tend to have more problems around the complexity of software and virus issues," Werth said.

Because it doesn't have to travel to your house, PlumChoice can charge by 15-minute increments. The company also offers flat rates for solving certain problems, such as $99.99 for a "PC tune-up" that includes spyware removal, system tray cleanup and installation of Windows updates. And monthly

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About the author

    Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.

     

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