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Last Updated: Monday, 28 March, 2005, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Technical support for the neighbours - where technology meets life, every week
By Paul Rubens

I had a hunch that most people just didn't know how to set up their computers - let alone fix them. So as an experiment I put up a note in my local newsagent's window offering, for a sum, a helping hand. Surprise surprise, my phone has hardly stopped ringing.

Computer software is very, very complex. Stick a load of it together on a computer - itself a pretty complex beast - and you've got yourself a system which is more complex than anything else you are ever likely to own.

Compared to a computer system, your fridge, washing machine, central heating boiler and car are kids' stuff: simple bits of machinery with relatively few parts, a limited number of functions and little that can go wrong.

But computers are sold in vast numbers, loaded with software and put to work. Most people who use them haven't got a clue how they work - and why should they? - and since software like Microsoft's Windows make them easy to use, people have no concept of the amount of data processing that's going on every time they click their mouse.

But because computers are so complex, it's inevitable, and usually not very long, before they stop working as they should.

When a domestic appliance goes wrong, you can ring a repair man. When your car breaks down you can call the garage. But when your computer system goes wrong, who do you call?

Computer user and circuit board
What lies beneath
A few months ago I came up with the theory that there must be a vast untapped market for PC repair men (or women) of this type to fix home and small business computers. Having pulled apart a few computers in my time, I decided to test this theory by sticking a small postcard in the local newsagent's window offering computer help.

The phone has hardly stopped ringing ever since and I've had calls from people of all ages, and all walks of life. A few examples:

  • Sidney round the corner is about 80, and bought a laptop to swap e-mails with his daughter in South Africa before it stopped connecting to the Internet one day.
  • Sarah, a novelist, found her computer kept crashing for no apparent reason.
  • And Helen, a housewife, contacted me because adverts for porn sites kept popping up on her computer screen when her kids where doing their homework.

I've even done a deal with a local vet: he looks after the health of my puppy and I look after his PC.

Most of the problems I've been called to look at have been caused by viruses and spyware, some by strange software provided by well-known internet service providers conflicting with other programs, and only one by faulty hardware.

But all the people who called me had one thing in common: they were at their wits' end because they had bought computers after being seduced by advertising into thinking that they would be easy to use and fun, but had found them to be much more complicated than they had expected. And most importantly, none of them knew what to do or where to turn for help.

Expensive support

Perhaps more surprisingly, I also got several calls from small local businesses.

There seem to be plenty of retailers only too willing to flog PCs to companies, but no-one around to help when the e-mail stops working or an essential spreadsheet refuses to open.

These companies can't afford expensive support contracts with computer service organisations - and they haven't got the time to pack up the computer and take it to a shop, and then wait a week or so for it to be fixed.

They need someone to come round promptly to fix things so they can get on with their business, and they're prepared to pay a fair price for the service.

Rubens' advert
Rubens' advert
After looking in a few more newsagents' windows I've discovered that I am not such a pioneer after all. Quite a few already have postcards advertising computer help, mostly offered by computing students, freelance programmers, or other people loosely connected with the IT industry - all hoping to make a few quid on the side.

It seems incredible, but millions of families and thousands of businesses have no-one to turn to but a bunch of unqualified amateurs to fix the most complicated pieces of equipment that have probably ever existed. It's a scary thought.

And it's about time that vet starts repaying me for all the hours I've put in fixing his computer. So far the pooch hasn't been ill, but then he only has about 500 parts. But when he does get sick, at least I know I'll be taking him to a fully qualified canine service engineer to be mended, not a local amateur.


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