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Pop! Goes the computer weasel: 'round and 'round the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey thought 'twos all in fun. Pop! Goes the weasel. (Chemputing).

Before I start, I would like to offer my apologies to those cute little carnivorous mammals of the genus Mustela. Unfortunately, that word weasel' has gained another meaning over the years and that term is all too relevant to the computer industry. We use it to describe someone as sneaky or treacherous. As a verb it can mean 'evasive': to use vague or ambiguous language in order to avoid speaking directly or honestly; to hedge. When someone 'weasels out', they are backing out of a situation or commitment in a sneaky or cowardly manner, likely by using a set of well thought-out 'weasel words'.

Let me go back a decade or so to the days when WordPerfect was the number one word processor. If you had a problem, you simply called them in Utah with a 1-800 number. You didn't pay for the call and help was always available at the end of that telephone line. They weren't happy until your problem was solved. There was no charge and no limitations to the number of calls you could make nor to the period over which you could make them. Often they would send you a free update. Sometimes the problem would go back to the programmers and you would get an update when it was incorporated.

Those were the good old days. Things have changed.

A few weeks ago, I went to Compaq's website to see what their knowledge base had to say about upgrading the operating system on my notebook. I found a quasi-generic set of instructions that were quite confusing, especially as some of them were inappropriate for my system. I sent an e-mail to their technical support with a few questions and got back a reply that appeared to be an automated set of weasel words telling me that I could essentially buzz off: I was no longer entitled to such service as my computer was no longer under warrantee. I'm sure they have every right to give me such an answer, but then I also have the right to tell you about it and to cross Compaq off the list when I next replace my notebook.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has a similar attitude. Something was going wrong with my Windows ME and there was nothing about it on their knowledge base. I decided to ask Microsoft the question through their Passport service, but didn't get very far. As soon as I entered my serial number, their computer spit back a set of weasel words telling me that my time had run out. Where do you go when Microsoft is the only game in town? I had asked them one question a few years ago. It was only one question, but that was all it took to start the clock. If I were Microsoft and had to deal with a customer who only had one question every two years, I would think this was someone who should be kept happy, especially when anyone who has read the manuals that come with Windows or used the online help will recognize that Microsoft is unlikely to be nominated for any awards that have been established to reward publishing excellence.

I did a web search and found my question discussed on a site set up to discuss problems with Windows. It was loaded with comments advising people against purchasing ME. I keep hearing from people who think that 98SE was the best version of Windows and that ME was a total disaster. My experience is that 98 or 98SE become unstable on my system and when that instability starts, I need only upgrade to ME to make everything stable. Hey, I'm the guy who likes ME and recommends the product to others. Why do they weasel out of giving me any help?

A few months ago, I bought a new Lexmark Z35 inkjet printer as a less expensive alternative to replacing the ink in my old Z33. Something didn't go right with the de-installation of the old and the installation of the new. I went to Lexmark's technical support and fully described both the problem and the installation. Back came the weasel words telling me that they don't support peer-to-peer networks between Windows ME and XP. I went back to them and asked them to show me where it said that in the warrantee and that the problem really had nothing to do with the network. I did get some sort of solution telling me to reinstall the old printer and de-install it again. I took the easy way to clear this up, plus a pile of other problems: it was time to reformat and start over again.

One of the most common set of weasel words is 'if you do this, it voids the warrantee.' I just can't understand how some companies can go out and advertise how versatile their equipment is and then do everything they can to get out of their warrantees if you actually believe them. When I bought my first Hewlett-Packard DeskJet, it cost $1,200. That high price made it advantageous to have a service policy on it. I remember a few of the service men being horrified to learn that I was re-inking the cartridges. Out came those weasel words, and I just showed them the book that described the re-inking process, complete with its Hewlett-Packard part number on the back cover. All the printer manufacturers insist that you use only their ink or toner cartridges and strenuously object to those kits that allow you to re-ink your cartridges. Of course they do; they make their money from selling ink and don't want you buying it from a competitor. Those weasel words are their only deterrent. Now that the cost of ink jet pri nters has become so low, you can afford to ignore the warrantee and just toss it out and buy a new one if anything goes wrong.

ISPs (Internet Service Providers) are experts in the weasel word business. I have one set of questions pending with Bell Sympatico. I asked their technical support a question and, as is my policy, I fully described both the problem and the installation. Back came the automated weasel words. They don't support my Eudora e-mail program and they don't support any system using a LAN. I understand that the telephone support personnel can't do everything, but this request went in by e-mail and should have gone to people who solve problems that are too detailed for a simple telephone call, Sympatico gives their DSL subscribers 10 hours per month of free dial-up use and I could duplicate the problem without being on my LAN by using the dial-up.

It's also interesting that, although they don't support a system using A LAN, the Sympatico website tells you how to set up a LAN and where to get the components. Maybe that's a plot to get everyone on a LAN; so, they can weasel out of giving any technical support.

Please don't get the idea from what I have said that all technical support is bad. Doing Chemputing requires that I load and unload a variety of software. I am going to see the good, the bad and the ugly. When I reviewed Partition Magic [Jan. 2001 ACCN], I spoke with a lady in Utah who decided that I had to edit the partition tables on my hard drives. She didn't weasel out. She talked me through the entire process over the telephone. That takes skill. I just long for those good old days when you felt that someone was interested in solving your problem rather than selling you a service to replace their bad manuals.

Note: All software, hardware or company names are trademarks of the respective manufacturers or suppliers. All cases cited are real and based upon communication with the various technical support groups.

You can reach our Chemputing Editor Marvin D. Silbert. FCIC at Marvin Silbert and Associates, 23 Glenelia Avenue, Toronto, ON, M2M 2K6 business tel and fax: 416-225-4541; e-mail:; Website:
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Title Annotation:editorial about customer support to resolve computer problems
Author:Silbert, Marvin D.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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