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HARDWARE

Fixed Fees Ahead?

Some vendors are charging customers for customer service support.
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Desktop-computing customer support has been transfigured into a bewildering mélange of options. (See "Changes in Computer Support," [Article link].) Much of what used to be free now is being billed to the customer. The reason: the cost large vendors have had to pay to provide technical support has been soaring. Last fall industry newsletter Softletter polled 148 personal-computer software developers and publishers, and determined that their median cost of answering a single tech-support call was a whopping $23.33.

But part of the blame for tech-support expense can be traced to the vendors themselves. For one thing, the manuals that accompany their products, never paragons of clarity when computers were simpler, are even more obtuse today. For another, products often get rushed to market before their bugs are shaken out. But mostly, as desktop computing follows increasingly elaborate paths, anxious users elect to talk directly to a reassuring guide. And vendors are betting those users will be willing to pay for it. "We don't want to spread the cost of that support into our products," explains a Microsoft representative, "so we're giving consumers lots of options." A solution in the offing: Microsoft is urging its resellers not "just to push boxes" but to learn to provide tech support for them as well. If that scheme comes about, long-distance service calls may soon be history.

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