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Computer Counselor - October 1999

Technical Support for Small Firms and Sole Practitioners
New forms of help for beleaguered users can let them snatch victory from the jaws of defeat

By Daryl Teshima
Daryl Teshima is a practice systems attorney for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. He can be reached at 

Good technology help is hard to find, especially when a computer crashes before a critical deadline. When the unthinkable happens, an attorney may discover that the office's technophile is either too busy or stumped, the consultant who sold the machine is suddenly not returning pages (frantic or otherwise), and repair shops offer to fix the machine in five business days, which is just in time to write the first letter to a malpractice carrier. 

Obviously, attorneys cannot depend solely upon these traditional resources for technical support. The sharp decrease in software and hardware prices has eroded profit margins, so most vendors have cut technical support. Gone are the days when new software comes with comprehensive instruction manuals. In addition, telephone support today is a pay-as-you-go proposition, although it features the same hallmarks of the old 800 numbers-interminable waits, irrelevant suggestions, and inevitable accusations that the fault lies with another manufacturer's product. 

When it comes to crashes, there is often enough blame for sharing. Users (especially those who do not back up regularly) should not automatically criticize Windows but instead consider the staggering number of hardware configurations that it must handle-not to mention the thousands of applications available. No single technical support resource can expect to be able to cope with all the possible problems resulting from all possible computer configurations. Accordingly, technical support today must be flexible as well as reliable, and to do so it must originate from a variety of sources. 

Support on the Web 

No single medium has changed the face of technical support more than the Internet. Manuals go out of date rapidly, and the people at support desks do little more than read from manuals. On the other hand, a computer company can stock its Web site with the latest support information, including frequently asked questions, patches, and searchable technical databases. Best of all, resources on the Web are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In the last few years, the Internet has become the main focus of most vendors' technical support efforts. 

Microsoft in particular has integrated the Web into most of its technical support offerings. Windows 98 can update itself by connecting with the Windows Update site (windowsupdate.microsoft.com) and automating the download and installation of new features and patches. This update method works well for individual workstations and small firms, but it becomes a bandwidth hog when applied throughout a larger enterprise. In response to complaints from large-network users, Microsoft also allows users to download Windows updates by means of manual selection at  www.microsoft.com/windows98/downloads/corporate.asp

Two other innovative Web-based support resources are WinTune (wintune.winmag.com) and BrowserTune (www.browsertune.com). Developed by Windows Magazine, these sites will put a computer system and Internet browser through a battery of tests that can help to diagnose common problems. 

Besides these Web-based diagnostic sites, there are several no-nonsense Web pages that take several different approaches to dispensing troubleshooting information. One of the best sites is Windows Annoyances (www.annoyances.org). Based on the popular book series from  O'Reilly and Associates, this site catalogs problems and solutions by topics ranging from networking to troubleshooting. 

Another unique site is Deja.com (www.deja.com), which provides a searchable list of Usenet newsgroups available on the Internet. Newsgroups are electronic public bulletin boards where computer users worldwide discuss every topic imaginable, including problems that cause computers to crash. Unfortunately, there are tens of thousands of newsgroups, making them extremely difficult to monitor efficiently. Deja.com solves this problem by allowing full-text searches of just about every Internet newsgroup, letting users communicate with others who are experiencing the same computer problem. Deja.com will often uncover tech support solutions faster than any other source. 

Hidden in Windows 
Microsoft has been the main cause of the demise of printed manuals, but the company has packed its Windows operating systems with several excellent troubleshooting wizards. To see a list of available wizards, select Start, Help, choose the Index tab, and then type "troubleshooting." By doing so users can find procedures ranging from getting onto the Internet to sorting hardware conflicts. The system utilities that Microsoft added to Windows 98 are even more helpful. Unfortunately, Microsoft made these utilities somewhat hard to find. Users may typically find the System Information applet by clicking on Start, Programs, Accessories, and System Information. Once the System Information applet is launched, select the Tools menu to uncover three tech support gems. 

The System Configuration Utility allows users to enable and disable the programs that normally are loaded when Windows starts. With this utility, users can pinpoint the source of a problem by process of elimination. The second tool is the System File Checker, which scans Windows for corrupted or nonstandard versions of critical files. If a bad system file is found, the utility will replace that file with the original version from the Windows 98 CD-ROM. Finally, the Registry Checker verifies, repairs, and backs up the Registry file, which contains almost all the Windows configuration information. If the Registry file becomes damaged a complete reinstallation of Windows is often required, so a good copy of the Registry file is valuable insurance. Presently, there are no corresponding built-in utilities for Windows NT, but the forthcoming version of NT (Windows 2000) has similar troubleshooting tools. 

Norton and Friends 
If the built-in Windows troubleshooters do not do the trick, a third-party utility often will. The most popular is Norton SystemWorks ($99 for the standard version), a utility suite that bundles Norton Utilities, Norton CleanSweep, Norton AntiVirus, Norton CrashGuard, and Norton Web Services. The venerable Norton Utilities (now on version 4.5) is worth the price of the entire suite alone. Norton's ability to diagnose and repair is widely viewed as better than that of any other utility program on the market. Norton is also well known for its ability to create an emergency repair disk, which will boot a system even if the hard drive is down for the count. In addition, Norton AntiVirus is an industry standard. The uninstaller CleanSweep is also at the top of its class. 

Other Norton components, however, are not as effective. Norton CrashGuard-a program that purportedly lets users recover from computer crashes-has been known to cause more problems than it solves. Norton Web Services, which analyzes a user's Windows installation and checks for updates, may offer to install more demos than fixes. Nonetheless, Norton is the best technical support that users can purchase for under $100. 

One relatively new form of crash protection not offered by Norton is an undelete program, which keeps a log of a computer's files. GoBack (Wild File, $70) works like a time machine to let users restore a computer system to its status at a particular time. For example, if users accidentally delete or overwrite a critical document, GoBack lets them turn back the hands of time and recover the document. GoBack stores a sector-by-sector record of all hard drive changes in a protected section, allowing users to restore a system to a prior configuration even if they accidentally reformat the drive or lose its data to a virus. This large degree of protection places a significant demand on system resources, but the demand and GoBack's purchase price are more than reasonable when a user on a deadline needs to recover immediately from an emergency. 

People Are Still Needed 
The flaw in nonhuman technical support resources is the assumption that an ailing system is working well enough to run a utility program or connect to the Internet. When a computer shows no signs of life or refuses to do anything but crash, a living, breathing technician is usually the only option. 

In many instances, the best route to human help is to purchase extended warranties. For example, subject to expected restrictions, for the first years after purchase, Dell Computer will send a technician the next business day after a user reports a problem. For an additional $149, Dell will continue to offer this service for three years. For an additional $1,350, however, Dell provides a higher level of support and promises to dispatch a technician within four hours of a call. Over three years, this maintenance plan amounts to $112 per month. 

For firms that cannot afford premium maintenance and technical support, the next-best option is establishing a long-term relationship with a local computer vendor. An ideal candidate is the value-added reseller (VAR) from which the firm purchases most of its computer equipment. Technical support is definitely easier if the consultant is familiar with the firm's existing systems. In addition, an existing relationship gives the consultant some incentive to provide good service. In the past, each law firm had to follow a hit-and-miss approach when searching for a local VAR. Today, many large vendors serve as matchmakers, pairing customers with local VARs. For instance, Corel and Microsoft offer VAR referral services. Microsoft's site (www.Microsoft.com/smallbiz/consultant) is aimed at small businesses, while Corel's is specifically targeted at the legal community (www.corel.com/partners_developers/calp/index.htm). Both sites provide firms with a list of local consultants. This matchmaking practice works for everyone's benefit. A law firm can hire consultants who are familiar with the equipment it is purchasing, and it receives affordable human technical support. The VARs receive a steady stream of clients, and the vendors are likely to inspire customer loyalty. 

The computer world changes with great rapidity, and technical support is no exception. Users whose computers are not working now have options beyond Norton and an 800 number. In particular, the Internet may now be used for many diagnostic and file repair needs. When human help is the only option, however, users would do well to maintain relations with a local retailer, even if to do so means paying prices somewhat higher than those available from large suppliers.

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