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Getting Your Tech Together

Home Is Where the Help Desk Is

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page F01

How quaint it now seems: Once upon a time, Americans didn't know how to program their VCRs, doomed to forever blink "12:00."

Those were the good old days, as it turns out. Today, those still-blinking digits are likely the least of your technology travails. Know how to upload the pictures from your cell phone's camera? How to broadcast music parked on your computer through your stereo? How to set up a wireless network in your home so you can check e-mail through your handheld computer?

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Technology has made it possible for all sorts of consumer gadgets to talk to each other, but they aren't necessarily speaking the same language. Certain MP3 players work only with some online music stores; digital cameras require specific memory cards; what's good for a Mac computer might not work with a machine running Windows.

More than ever, consumers need to plan and research their tech purchases beforehand, to make sure the parts of their digital dream home will actually work together.

"What's happening is consumers are facing what businesses faced when they went digital years ago," said Michael Gartenberg, analyst at Jupiter Research. "The problem is most homes don't come with a support desk and a help staff."

In other words, don't buy a gadget these days if you can't spare the time to do the grunt work necessary for getting it to work. Gaithersburg resident Cheryl Stafford has called upon a virtual tech army over two months in an effort to get her $500 Pocket PC handheld computer hooked up to her wireless network connection at home: three folks from Comcast, four from CompUSA and two from Hewlett-Packard. She has now given up.

Even if your computers and computerized electronics are up and playing together nicely today, it doesn't mean they will be tomorrow, as even the most benevolent-seeming upgrade can wipe out an Internet connection. What's more, different tech support teams can sometimes offer conflicting advice.

Charles Pelham found out both lessons the hard way after he downloaded Microsoft's Windows XP Service Pack 2 upgrade to his desktop computer and promptly lost his high-speed Internet access.

Verizon's tech team told him that he shouldn't have installed the Windows update and that he'd probably have to buy a new hard drive. Microsoft's tech team got Pelham's computer up and running again, but he is still a little spooked about that Verizon call.

Verizon spokesman John Vincenzo said Pelham's experience doesn't match the guidelines Verizon gives its support team, which don't call for warning customers away from Service Pack 2. "If that happened, it's a matter of an employee trying to be helpful based on some experience they might have had."

On the other hand, resisting that upgrade or the new operating system can easily be just as much of a headache. Silver Spring resident Leslie Schwerin's husband bought her a smart phone -- one of those cell phones that include the schedule and contact management tools of a personal digital assistant -- but it's his gadget now, because she couldn't get it to work on the Mac she uses at the office, which runs the now-obsolete Mac OS 9 system software.

She figures at this point that she's probably going to upgrade that computer, but now she's worried about whether Verizon will support a Treo smart phone that is tethered to a Mac; though the Treo is officially Mac-compatible, Verizon has told her that this combination won't work with its system.

For Schwerin, figuring out what to do to get her computer, her wireless carrier and a hypothetical new smart phone working together has "been on my to-do list for six months, but I just get overwhelmed thinking about it," she said. If average consumers must be their own tech support team these days, "I am falling down on the job."

For shoppers savvy enough to know about such potential problems and skittish enough to want to avoid them, techno-lust often turns into this sort of paralysis, a condition often driven by conflicting or nonexistent standards or baffling marketing messages.

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