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Why does PC support stink? Ask Symantec

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper recounts how Symantec put in an Oscar-losing performance when his hard drive came under attack.

Let me share one of my profession's dirty little secrets.

The folks in the computer press can always zip to the front of the queue when their PCs go haywire. All they need do is place a call to an industry contact, and a savvy technician will miraculously emerge to save the day.

It's an easy out--not to mention plainly unfair--but don't you wish you were so privileged? Because the reality is that service still stinks. Nearly three decades into the PC revolution, the computer industry's post-sale support remains more honored in the breach than in the observance.

All this is by way of introduction to my go-around with Symantec during Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony. After rebuilding

You might assume a company that makes antivirus software would not gouge paying customers.
my wife's hard drive, yours truly attempted to load Norton Antivirus 2005. But the install sequence failed, because--according to the results of a Symantec diagnostic test lasting hours--a Trojan horse program called Adware.minibug had infected the drive.

After placing a call to Symantec, I waited some minutes before putting on a goofy headset my wife insisted I wear. I may have looked like Lily Tomlin, but the headset enabled me to step away from the computer. After some time, I began jotting down notes.

So began the evening's entertainment:

4:02 Put the chicken into the oven. Used the last of the aluminum foil. (Note to self: Buy more aluminum foil before wife finds out.)

4:05 Weirder-than-normal Muzak on the line. I wonder who chooses this stuff and whether they wear Dockers.

5:00 Still no sign of human life on the line, but the pre-Oscar parade is starting. The Muzak's getting worse. (Is that possible?)

5:05 Tested the chicken. Outdid myself this time, but not enough butter on hand to make the risotto. Wife won't be happy. Still no Symantec.

5:08 How long does it take to answer a telephone? If Clint wins best director, that would make my day.

5:12 Bored beyond belief. Starting to impersonate the Numa Numa guy. My two cats keep their distance.

5:15 How many miles does a phone connection span from San Francisco to India? Mind wandering. I'm picking Hilary Swank for best actress, but Annette Bening was pretty damn great in "Being Julia."

5:20 This is the longest I've ever waited on a support call.

5:30 Oscars start. Yes!

5:39 Chris Rock's so tame, he's lame. He's so careful not to offend. He should hang on a tech support line for a while to retrieve his edge.

5:42 Halle Berry's on stage. Oh my.

5:49 Was that Abba I just heard? Time to feed the cats.

5:52 Starting to fantasize about what I would say to Symantec's CEO if he were to pick up the phone.

5:55 Robin Williams goes into his shtick. Max, my Russian Blue, approaches the sofa, looks up for approval, then barfs on the rug.

6:00 More than an hour of wearing this silly headset. Still no sign of life at Symantec. My ear's assumed the consistency of cauliflower.

6:05 Beyonce is wearing green eye shadow. Then again, I suppose few people are looking at her eye shadow.

6:09 I'm actually starting to hum along with the Muzak. Danger, Will Robinson, danger!

6:10 Finally, a response: "Muta," from Symantec's tech support, answers the phone. Let us pick up on the narrative:

Muta began to recite the checklist of troubleshooting items, when I interrupted.

"You don't need to go on," I told him. "There's a Trojan horse called Adware.minibug that the diagnostic utility on the Symantec page says is the problem."

Well, then we can go ahead and resolve the problem, Muta said.

Wonderful, I thought. The end is near.

"How would you like to pay?"

Come again?

I heard correctly. Two hours-plus hanging in phone purgatory was not enough. Symantec was giving me two choices: I could receive tech assistance by e-mail; in that case, I would pay $39.95. Or I could resolve the issue with a live "expert" like Muta for $69.95.

"But I spent 69 bucks buying the damned thing at retail!" I yelled.

Muta realized he had a psycho-in-the-making on the line and did his best to defuse a potential crisis.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I don't make the rules. Would you like to proceed?"

Um, I don't think so, I said. Why should I spend more money to get rid of an infected file that Norton Antivirus was supposed to take care of in the first place?

Click.

You might assume a company that makes antivirus software wouldn't gouge paying customers who can't install its product because a minor Trojan horse has infected the computer's drive. Isn't that what this stuff is supposed to fix in the first place? One day, I hope to put that question directly to Symantec's chief executive, John Thompson.

It's politically correct to say Microsoft is too big and Windows should be reined in. But might consumers be better off if all the antivirus technology they need came free of charge, as part of the operating system? We'll soon find out, because that's the direction Microsoft is heading. Truth be told, after this latest go-around with Symantec, I can't wait.