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You can call Compaq's virtual technician "Al"

Compaq Computer plans to pack a virtual self-help technician, "Al," in every new Presario Internet PC, starting next month.

Compaq Computer plans to pack a virtual self-help technician, "Al," in every new Presario Internet PC, starting next month.

The PC maker's new Technician-In-a-Box program is part of an ongoing trend of using software or Internet-based troubleshooting tools to cut support costs. Al also completes Compaq's three-pronged consumer service strategy, which provides tools for preemptive and assisted support.

But will Al go the way of Microsoft's Bob?

Microsoft in March of 1995 introduced Bob, the software company's attempt to make computing easier. Bob was a software program that attempted to help guide PC users with big, friendly signs and buttons. But it was discontinued a year later, although some of Bob's concepts have shown up in other programs.

One of the most notable descendents of Bob is the Office Assistant, part of the Microsoft Office software package, although some reviewers and users are annoyed by this animated paper clip that answers questions.

Compaq licenses some of Al's technology from Motive Communications, which also provides similar technology to Dell Computer for its PowerEdge servers and for all of Gateway's PC products.

"The overall area of PC support is becoming a major battle ground and will probably culminate by Christmas in that you have to have e-support ready with every PC," said Mike Maples, founder and vice president of Motive.

Users launch Al from what Compaq calls the "Rocket" button on the Presario's keyboard. Al is not a proactive tool, always monitoring the PC, nor does he require the user to ask for assistance.

"He just knows what state the system is supposed to be in," said Geraldine Rossiter, Compaq's marketing manager for Presario services. Al looks through his toolbox--a database of information on the Presario's hard drive--to check the system's status. If he finds a problem, he asks the user for permission to fix it.

Al will also troubleshoot more complex problems and electronically send a report to a Compaq technician for assistance if he can't solve them.

"This electronic record saves an enormous amount of time diagnosing the customer's issue," said Ross.

In complex cases, the technician might use Compaq Carbon Copy software to access the PC remotely and attempt to solve the problem.

Compaq also uses BackWeb to update Al's toolbox and other system software. "We're enabling both local or disconnected or connected electronic service by doing this," explained Ross. "Especially for our mobile customers on the road, they're not always going to be connected the way they want to be."

Compaq, like other PC manufacturers, faces growing support costs, particularly in the consumer market. By shifting to more self-help and electronic troubleshooting tools, Compaq hopes to cut support costs while boosting customer satisfaction.

"We are hoping for some call deflection, because we are enabling self-help without the hassles of understanding a PC," said Ross. "There is also a cost reduction to diagnosing customer issues over the phone."

Support call volumes will increase 20 percent annually through 2003 and average call times will also go up, according to the META Group. About 6 percent of support requests are handled over the Internet, with that number expected to reach 20 percent by 2003.