Last weekend went a little differently than Virginia resident William Harlowe expected it to. On Saturday, he went to his office in his Montclair home and found that his Norton AntiVirus utility had discovered a virus on his five-month-old IBM Aptiva computer. Bad news, but nothing disastrous, right? He clicked the "repair" button to delete the virus, but was told the software was unable to fix the problem.

After a few spending an hour or two on hold with his cable-modem service provider and America Online, he was told by both companies that they don't track viruses. AOL gave him a number for Symantec, the company behind Norton AntiVirus. The number didn't work.

He spent all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday trying to fix the problem. Symantec charged him $20 for a real-time chat with a technician who told him he was experiencing "false alerts" and to ignore the software telling him he had a virus. Eventually, Harlowe reformatted his hard drive to try to get rid of the problem, which was preventing him from getting anything else done--only to find that, virus or no, his computer was now useless because his computer hadn't come with the right manuals, and, as a result, have didn't have a product code number to get Microsoft Windows working again.

By Thursday, a new manual from IBM was en route to Harlowe, and Symantec (in response to our calls) had offered to send him a copy of the newest version of Norton AntiVirus. In the meantime, he was limping along with his old computer.

In an ideal world, you'd never have to make a tech-support call, of course. Computers and software products would work right and you'd never have to ask your friends, poke through well-meaning but anemic help files, or dig up the manual and squint through the back pages of a product manual looking for that support number.

It's probably never going to happen, says just about anyone in a position to know.

"The reality is, software is not an exact science," says Joseph Lindstrom, Microsoft's director of "product support service business development." But aren't software companies responsible for making sure their products are stable and work properly? Lindstrom points the blame elsewhere: "There are other software or third-party hardware manufactures that may corrupt or not interoperate," he said. "Without having visibility into that consumer's desktop, it's difficult to have responsibility for the stability of that customer's environment."

Herndon resident Phil Smith, who's worked in software development and staffed tech-support desks off and on for 20 years, sees things a bit more cynically. "Things released today as 'beta' wouldn't be called 'alpha' 10 years ago," he said. "Nowadays you get betas with disclaimers saying, 'We know this doesn't work.'

"Software vendors are like children: They have a short attention span," Smith continued. "After the release comes out, they don't care about it anymore"--the product is no longer making its company any more money. Furthermore, as Smith sees it, there has been a fundamental change in the industry with regard to tech support--as companies have started to charge for support, they also lose part of their motivation to ship bug-free products.

Microsoft's Lindstrom dismisses such charges, saying "I don't think any company wants to make products that are difficult to use and that break." He believes the next step for product support is programs that can repair themselves; for instance, the latest release of Microsoft Office is designed to reinstall its constituent files if it sees that any of them have been moved or deleted by mistake.

Anthony Lye, chief executive of NoWonder.com, might agree on that point. Lye's company has licensed a technology called TalkBack to customers such as Microsoft, Apple and Netscape. This software, which is already built into Netscape Navigator, takes a snapshot of what activity is going on when a crash happens. After rebooting, TalkBack can tell a user exactly what caused the crash and direct the user to a server if there are any online patches available to keep the problem from coming up again.

But the NoWonder Web site (http://www.nowonder.com), which has been up for 18 months, might also point to a possible direction for the future of tech support. At the site, there are what the company says are "tens of thousands" of good Samaritans, signed up to help out other lost technology victims. Right now, the service is free for everyone concerned, but Lye is planning to let his volunteer helpers charge for their support in the near future--he's hoping that NoWonder.com will become a marketplace, like eBay, but one where people will post their tech-support problems instead of the contents of their attics.

But for now, tech-support hassles aren't a financial opportunity; they're just a constant, recurring aggravation. Earlier this week, a Fast Forward contributor wanted to find out if he could use Microsoft Publisher to open files created in Adobe PageMaker. He poked around Microsoft's Web site and Adobe's Web site. No answer. He called Dell, but the tech-support team there couldn't help him either. Finally, he called Microsoft, which offered to answer the question for $35. The answer: Sorry, no, Publisher can't be used to open PageMaker files. The tech-support rep offered to connect him to the number where he could get a refund of his $35, but then something odd happened, a first for this die-hard geek who's spent many an hour waiting on hold waiting for Microsoft's tech support to pick up: He was disconnected.

Fast Forward correspondent Daniel Greenberg contributed to this report.

TERMS OF ENDUREMENT: What Major Software Developers Offer

Do they really want to hold your hand? Here's what the country's biggest software publishers (according to market researchers PC Data) offer in the way of live technical support. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of these companies recommend that customers try their Web-based support before picking up the phone. But if you do call, here's the deal (hours are Eastern Standard Time):

1. Microsoft--The company behind everything from the ubiquitous PC operating system to games like Age of Empires supports Windows 98 and Internet Explorer without a charge for 90 days after a customer's first support call. After that, tech support is available for a $35-per-incident charge. Microsoft's games, desktop applications and multimedia applications come without such time limits on support. Toll call.

2. Mattel Interactive--The company behind all those Barbie and Purple Moon titles provides unlimited, toll-free support for its products. 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays.

3. Havas Interactive--This conglomerate includes Knowledge Adventure, which puts out education software, Blizzard Entertainment, a game developer, and Sierra On-Line. Tech support varies: Knowledge Adventure provides unlimited, toll-free support for current products from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sierra On-Line's and Blizzard's tech support is a toll call, but the company provides unlimited support for its products weekdays from 11 a.m. to 7:45 p.m.

4. Intuit--The financial-software company behind Quicken offers toll-free automated fax support and automated telephone support. Intuit supports its line of personal tax help products for free (toll call, though). Toll-free support for Quicken is available for calls concerning installation, data conversions and Internet connections through the product. A $1.95-per-minute charge applies for all other topics. Otherwise, no toll-free support is available.

5. Symantec--This utility developer offers a number of fee-based technical support plans. "Chat Now" offers real-time online chat from Symantec's support technicians for $19.95 per incident; "PriorityCare" telephone support costs $2.95 per minute or $29.95 per incident; "GoldCare," intended for corporate customers, offers a number of subscription options ranging upward from a five-incident pack for $99.95. Hours of availability vary according to product. Symantec's Web site includes searchable databases as well as free e-mail support.

6. Adobe Sytems--The desktop-publishing and image-editing software development company offers two levels of free support. For "level one" software (for instance, PageMill and PhotoDeluxe) registered users can call free for one incident. For "level two" software (i.e., the more expensive stuff such as Photoshop) registered users can call for free support for 90 days after the first support call. After that, support is $2 per minute at a 900 number or $25 per incident (long-distance charges still apply if you pay this way, though).

7. Electronic Arts--EA's tech support is free, with no per-incident charges. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and 4 to 7:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Toll call.

8. Hasbro Interactive--Tech support is free and available via a toll-free number from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.

9. Network Associates--Network Associates Web site offers e-mail support, which, the company says, generally elicits a response from the tech support team within half an hour. Phone support for its consumer products (for instance, the McAfee line of anti-virus products) is free for the first 30 days from the first support call, but available only via a toll call. The company also has the dubious honor of making the process of downloading updates more difficult than most other developers: You must enter a "product code" and password to download the latest upgrade from its Web site.

10. GT Interactive--Best known for popular action games like Duke Nukem, Total Annihilation and Unreal, GT Interactive provides unlimited tech support, available 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. Toll call.