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Intel takes on PC support service

Taking on a job usually reserved for computer makers, the chip giant will offer a service that provides technical support and information.

Taking on a job usually reserved for computer manufacturers, Intel (INTC) is moving into the help desk business with a service that provides small businesses and consumers with technical support and information to make PCs easier to use.

Ease of use is a critical issue as Intel and the rest of the industry struggle to drive up sales of personal computers, historically notorious for being vexing to novice users.

Subscribers to the new AnswerExpress service can get help with computer navigation tips, virus removal, data storage, and close to 100 major software applications like Adobe PageMaker and Norton Utilities from Symantec, according to James Johnson, vice president of Internet services operation at Intel. The service costs $49.95 for the first three months and $14.95 a month thereafter.

The service will be slightly different from most help desk operations. Rather than call in, subscribers will have to send an email; a technician will then analyze the problem and call the subscriber within ten minutes.

The new division will be run on a profit basis and be staffed by both Intel employees and outsourcing companies, Johnson said. AnswerExpress can be bought through CompUSA, a large retailer, Computer City, and major reseller CDW, and will likely be expanded to other retailers.

AnswerExpress is one of a number of investments Intel has made to further the success of the computer business as a whole. Because it provides the processors for the overwhelming majority of PCs in use today, the chip maker benefits from the health of the entire industry, as well as growth of the Internet. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

The help service should be welcomed by PC makers and consumers, but its success is not guaranteed, said Kevin Hause, computer analyst for International Data Corporation. Providing support services has been a time-consuming and expensive headache for most companies. Some PC manufacturers, such as Packard Bell, have increased support costs to cover the expense.

At the same time, consumers have had difficulty getting adequate support. Computer resellers have been providing these services to commercial users for some time, but not to smaller businesses and individuals.

"There has been a lot of experimentation to get around the PC," Hause said. "It's been a thorn in the side of many PC vendors."

Putting together an effective program won't be easy, he added. With AnswerExpress, Intel is holding itself out as an expert capable of supporting a wide variety of software applications and PC products. "There are risks associated with this," Hause said.

Further, Intel won't find it easy to use the common excuse of many PC help desks: blaming the software vendor or vice versa.

AnswerExpress will exist chiefly to provide users information, Johnson said. Nearly 70 percent of consumers who call help desks want basic information, such as how to eliminate, or bring back, tasks bars on screens.

"This is not something computer vendors revel in doing," he said. "What the industry has been doing in response to this is books."

Only 30 percent of the calls relate to an immediate computing crisis, such as a disk drive locking up, though AnswerExpress will provide crisis support as well. In addition, users will receive virus scanning service and file storage space in a data center.