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Remote support comes to consumers' aid

As households fill up with PCs, gadgets and networking gear, today's troubleshooters are finding ways to skip the house call.

Gone are the days when daunted PC owners had no choice but to call a help desk and walk through the support process by phone. New direct-to-consumer services are letting technicians access and fix PCs remotely.

Through these services--which are popping up on the Web and being offered by PC makers and retailers--technicians on the other end of the line can access a customer's computer through a high-speed Internet connection and fix it themselves, rather than walking a less tech-savvy customer through the often painful process.

"Instead of reading arcane jargon, (remote support) can just show me directly," said Downs Deering, Dell's director of consumer services delivery. "All our customers have another life outside wanting be a junior phone technician."

PC retailers, of course, have offered technical support for years through warranties and extra, fee-based services. And more recently, Best Buy and Circuit City have offered more personalized tech support with Geek Squad and Firedog, respectively, which send experts to consumers' homes to install or fix electronics.

It's difficult to zero in on just how big the tech support market is. Best Buy, which purchased the Geek Squad consumer tech support and installation business in 2002, estimates that the potential market for computer support services is $30 billion to $50 billion based on a compilation of industry reports and the company's own research. But it's impossible to know for sure how much of that is actually cashed in on.

That fix is going to cost you
"Overall, those numbers are probably pretty accurate for market 'opportunity,' but it's a hugely fragmented market and the full opportunity may never be realized," according to Andy Hargreaves, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities. Plus, that doesn't account for installations or repairs done by customers' friends and neighbors.

To put it in perspective, between April 2006 and March 2007, U.S. consumers spent $25.5 billion on PC purchases, according to the NPD Group's consumer tracking services.

"Instead of reading arcane jargon, (remote support) can just show me directly."
--Downs Deering, director of consumer services delivery, Dell

Technical support for consumers is getting a lot more attention these days, with good reason, according to Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for NPD Group. The increased integration of devices and the move toward complex home networks means more people are willing to spend money to address their technological woes.

"The No. 1 reason is we can't be without our digital stuff. Fact is, if your computer didn't work (in the past), it wasn't as big a deal as today, when your computer has all your movies, music, (and it's) how you connect with relatives, friends, how you shop, how your pay your bills," Baker said.

There's clearly a need for professional PC problem solvers. But services like Geek Squad and Firedog can be pricey--up to $350 for complicated in-home repairs or installations--and require an ailing product to be dropped off in the store or a technician to be dispatched to a customer's home.

But while remote support for consumers decidedly has its benefits, it's not yet as sophisticated as similar services offered by many IT departments. Missing from remote support for consumers is something akin to what Intel's vPro chip allows with its Active Management Technology, which lets professional IT departments manage software updates and installations without a notebook even being turned on.

For now, remote support for consumers with PC problems means having to download an application to the desktop for diagnostic purposes while a technician is given control of the computer remotely.

Gotta have broadband
Both Firedog and Geek Squad now offer remote services, which cost significantly less than ordering a home visit or bringing the product to a store. Both charge $30 for remote online support and $60 for in-store; in-home is $160 for basic PC diagnostic services.

But a recent survey by The NPD Group concluded that consumers are more likely to seek third-party help or get their PC fixed by a manufacturer than get support from big-box electronics retailers. More than half of the consumers surveyed said they purchased installation and setup services for a home PC from an independent installer or directly from the PC manufacturer.

That could be because tech support is often included in warranties from PC manufacturers, which are beginning to include remote services. Dell, the world's No. 2 PC maker, has been offering remote tech support for a year, and says approximately one in four DellConnect help session customers now uses remote diagnosis.

Hewlett-Packard, the leading PC maker, began offering remote technical help in September. The application HP now uses to diagnose consumer PC problems was developed and used internally within the company for several years before it was tweaked to help customers, according to Mark Notarainni, HP's director of contract vendor operations for consumer business.

For remote diagnosis, a broadband connection is necessary. HP says 55 percent of its customers have broadband, meaning just more than half of its customers are eligible for remote services.

But there are still some who will be left out in the cold. To ameliorate that situation, Dell plans to offer remote help for dial-up customers next month, said the company's Deering.

While it might seem a natural choice to turn to one's PC maker for assistance, particularly when machines are still under warranty, doing so is not always without its troubles. A recent consumer fraud lawsuit against Dell by the New York attorney general's office, for example, accused the company of forcing customers with paid warranties to navigate "a nightmarish array of obstacles in their quest for service."

Consumers, it seems, have taken note of service options outside their computer's maker. According to NPD, consumer response to its survey about tech support choices shows a preference for personalized attention from neighborhood service providers. Third-party online offerings are a cheaper alternative. Support.com charges between $30 and $100 for tech help for PCs. SupportMinds charges from $15 per service call to $90 for a yearlong service contract. Other online service help desks include PlumChoice and Peak8.

Support.com, which debuted as a direct-to-consumer support service at the beginning of 2006, is owned by SupportSoft, a decade-old company that makes its money selling software tools to the IT departments of large businesses. It recently moved into the lucrative consumer support market with an eye on undercutting prices of the in-home and in-store tech help services.

Of course, privacy and security are obvious concerns for consumers when it comes to allowing a stranger to access a computer desktop. Remote technicians are instructed not to access personal files or documents, and customers are told to close e-mail programs, browser windows and anything they consider private before allowing access. HP, Dell and Support.com all say their services give PC owners complete control to end the remote session at any time while the service is being performed.

But for computer users who want their machine fixed fast, privacy is generally not a primary concern, according to the NPD's Baker.

"First and foremost, the problem people want solved is getting (their PC) up and running again," he said. "If that means giving PC control to someone to fix it, most people are willing to do that."