The spread of personal computer use throughout U.S. society has intensified demand for people who can help when hardware or software problems arise. This, in turn, has created a new and growing occupational category - home support technician.
Extra power sources, CD burners, extra modems, cans of compressed air for cleaning hard drives these are the tools most home support technicians carry with them when they make house calls.
But very frequently, says Ernie Scallop, who fixes sick home computers in Hampton, Virginia, the problem is neither in the computer nor the software. Rather, he says, it's the user who does not fully understand how the technology works. "Like this morning, for instance, I went out to a gentleman and he had a cable modem and he couldn't get to the Internet, and the problem was that he hadn't reset all of his equipment," he says. "It took me about ten minutes and he was up and running."
Older Americans are sending electronic mail to their grandchildren. Teenagers are researching school papers on the Internet. Workers are hooking up with the office from home.
Personal computers have become so popular so quickly, Ernie Scallop says, that few people understand how they work. And not many care. "They just want to be able to do what they want to do, and they don't care how they have to do it as long as they can get to it," he says. "Sometimes they are very frantic. They can't get into their e-mail, or they can't get onto the Internet."
"Geeks On Call," the firm Ernie works for, operates a call-in center staffed by technicians who listen to customers computer problems and suggest remedies.
Those they can not fix over the telephone, President Walter Ewell says, are relayed to repairmen like Ernie. "A computer is a wonderful thing until you get to a place where you can't do what you want to do or it locks up on you and you don't know why. That's when they will call us to see if they have a virus embedded in their system that they are not aware of," he says.
"Geeks on Call" was formed in 1999 by few technicians. "I don't think anyone understood the magnitude of what was going to happen. And we're just on the edge of it," says Mr. Ewell.
Today, Walter Ewell says, the company has franchises in five different regions of the United States and is about to open a sixth.