PCs

10 ways tech support has changed since the 1980s

Over the past 30 years, IT has seen some monumental changes -- and they've had a huge impact on the field of tech support. See if you remember the way it used to be.

In the mid-1980s, I was responsible for computer support (as we called it) at a university law library. We had about 20 PCs for the staff -- not everyone had one -- and another 10 for the newly developed computer lab. Since then, the number of computers (and users) that tech support deals with has increased by an order of magnitude. There are other changes as well. Computers have changed, users have changed, and the tech support environment has changed.

1: Support was task-bound

Back then, it was a rare person who had a computer at home; PCs were mostly found at work, or at school. In fact, computers at home were a problem -- the software and hardware were almost never compatible with what was supported at work. The problem did have its upside, though: You could justifiably take the position that "If it's not work you're doing, it's not my problem." Tech support has since lost the battle to keep home, work, and school separate. That ship has sailed.

2: Support was time-bound

With PCs mostly at work or school (and compatibility a serious issue), computing -- and support -- were accomplished for the most part during the work or school schedule. Since then, the dividing lines between work time, school time, and time off have become less clear, and the computer is far more a part of everyday life. As a consequence, that ship has also sailed -- right behind the first one.

3: Support was location-bound

In the '80s, PCs were "installed" -- set up on location by tech support or (occasionally) by the user. Any subsequent problems generally required a visit, traveling to the computer. As computers became smaller, cheaper, and more powerful, PCs became increasingly portable. In the 1980s, user support could be set up where the computers were. Now other approaches are required.  With the spread of smartphones and tablets, complete mobility is in the cards. This change is still in progress…but that ship's getting ready to sail.

4: Networks developed and spread

Paralleling the changes to task, time, and location was the increased use of PC networks. Like the proverbial chicken egg, networks were both the product and producer of those changes. The result was a change in how PCs were used. In the '80s, the primary reason to network PCs was local -- to share expensive peripherals like laser printers or provide access to specific databases. In the following decades the spread of networks made PCs more like terminals, focused on the ability to connect to other people (near and far), access distant databases, and utilize the capabilities of remote data centers.

5: Standardization increased

A critical aspect of the rise of networks was the broad adoption of appropriate standards. Any network requires standards to function and, as networks connected more hardware and software, new incompatibilities emerged -- generating pressure to develop and adopt more new standards. Networking standards initially developed for connecting mainframe computers, like Ethernet (1973) and TCP/IP (1974), were soon adapted to connecting PCs as well, supplanting local PC network standards like AppleTalk and Novell Netware.

Expanding networks also exerted pressure on the makers of PC hardware and software to standardize among themselves. Thirty years ago, incompatibilities between types of PC hardware and software were legion. Intel and Motorola competed in the PC market with completely different chip sets. Microsoft still offered DOS as an interface, as well as its Windows operating system. Apple was in much the same state with its Apple II and Macintosh lines. Storage media not only had different forms (diskette size and "floppiness"), but different formats as well. Data file formats were often idiosyncratic, specific to the program (or version) that created them.  Almost all these incompatibilities have since yielded to standards, accompanied by new standards for multimedia data.

6: Open standards and open source software flourished

The development of the Internet and web browsers made collaborative efforts toward open standards far easier to create and maintain. It also enabled software developers to effectively harness the efforts of far-flung colleagues to create efficient, cheap, and reliable open source software, such as the widely used Apache HTTP server, Firefox browser, and Linux operating system. Both standards and programs had the effect of encouraging and simplifying further integration of networks and PCs.

7: Updates over the Internet became possible

In the 1980s, updates or upgrades to software were generally delivered by -- and often installed by -- tech support. Updates were also relatively infrequent. However, as viruses and other malware threats increased in number and severity in the following decades, operating systems and antivirus applications began to require more frequent updates.  At the same time, broadband network connections were becoming commonplace for PCs, which provided a more convenient option for delivery of updates, upgrades, and initial installations. Now updates are almost always delivered over the Internet or intranet, and tech support may or may not be involved. Additionally, a significant proportion of updates are now delivered automatically over the Net, with little or no involvement of tech support or the user.

8: Users grew more knowledgeable and independent

It's important to remember that in the 1980s, personal computers were new, with computing just beginning to reach outside the walls of data centers. Users needing PC support were frequently clueless. Often, a great deal of time was spent explaining the mouse -- and demonstrating how to use it. There is now a lot less training and handholding.  A great many of today's users grew up with PCs and are correctly assumed to have a comparatively large amount of knowledge and skill. They're no longer naïve, they're native.

Increasingly, in fact, users are becoming co-creators of software, rather than passive recipients, whether getting involved in open source projects or being drafted -- willingly or not -- as bug finders. For some programs, tech support is left entirely in the hands of users, relying upon a large customer base and the noblesse oblige of the most skilled.

9: Networks are becoming part of the infrastructure

In the end, the most important factor in changes to tech support is networking, now a requirement rather than optional. Connections to the Internet and intranets are becoming part of the infrastructure -- like telephone, electricity, or flush toilets.

As network connectivity moved from optional to required, users' attitudes toward it also changed. As with any infrastructure, people want it to "just be there," humming away in the background without their having to think about it, without interruption, without fail. These new expectations -- along with the fact that network problems have a bigger impact -- have led to a shift in focus away from individual PC issues toward measures (proactive or remedial) to maintain network access. Tech support's concerns have begun to resemble those of utility companies. Problems are more often about restoring or improving a service that people depend on, rather than teaching them how to use their equipment.

10: Tech support is becoming part of the infrastructure

The combination of smarter users, more standardization, and network access has made it possible to delegate initial user support to scripted help desks, delivered by telephone or network. Visits are only rarely necessary -- and that changes the nature of tech support. In the 1980s, most users had a "computer guy" in their address book, who advised them when they got their computer, trained them if necessary, installed new hardware, and generally got called any time there was a problem. The best were like a good auto mechanic, someone you knew and depended on, whose name might be passed on to a friend as a favor.

Now tech support is rarely provided by the same person twice (even for the same problem). They are just voices, or messages on a screen. If a problem resists remote resolution, tech support will send a third (or fourth) person to deal with it. A personal relationship is less important than competence and speed. "Just fix it, please...  soon."

Technological evolution

While it's likely to require a decade or two longer for personal computers and networks to become nothing more than infrastructure, the trend is clear. They are gradually being drawn into the background of everyday life, as easily ignored as electric lights, running water, and pencil and paper. Tech support as well is receding into the background, as unnoticed as telephone poles, as unseen as bricks... until something fails, whereupon faceless myrmidons emerge from their hidden places and swiftly set to work returning life to normal. It is a tribute to the technological progress of the past 30 years that what once required individual effort, expertise, and personal relationships, now happens more or less automatically.

25 comments
TBone2k
TBone2k

One of the biggest changes is remote support. Having worked in tech support in the '90s, I cound the biggest issue was you couldn't see what the user was really doing. We got good at finding foolproof ways to get users to do things. I quickly learned not to tell a user to drag a file from folder to folder, because they would inevitably let go of the mouse button too early and lose the file. Nowadays you can just fire up a gotomypc session and solve the problem for them.

And since everyone else is mentioning #8, I'll add this: Nowadays, users don't have to care about the technical reasons behind a problem. If you can log on remotely and fix it for them, they are happy that it saves them time over fixing it themselves.

FTAdmin
FTAdmin

No. 8

Emphasis on "more". I agree, that users are "more" knowledgeable, but that still doesn't make them anywhere close to IT gurus. If anything, it may encourage some users to accidentally create problems that otherwise would not be there, because they think they are helping to lighten the IT load by doing some things on their own--thinking they know a thing or two. I'm not going to get into the whole "a good system should be locked down" because this article includes home users. And there's always BYOD to create additional fun and IT calls. After all, everyone knows how to use smartphones--am I right? (insert chuckles and head-shaking with a grin)

rmerchberger
rmerchberger

Decent article -- good read. Some I agree with, some I don't... but I just gotta say:

Thanks to who decided to use a picture of that *sweet* late model Tandy Color Computer 2 for the article!

[[ I still have a couple of those... they do take a bit of a back seat to my still-in-use CoCo3, tho. ]]

philswift
philswift

Smarter users? What does that have to do with IT service desk and support? Nothing. It is totally irrelevant if users are actually, or just seen to be, smart. For IT service and support to run efficiently and effectively, there has to be a firm but fair, tough love approach and keeps things simple under ITIL law. Users, whether power-users or otherwise, must be policed and constrained within a structured that uses hardware black and white lists, hard nosed AUP and proper qualified business need underwritten by IT seniors not the Financial Controller, Accountants or weak-willed CEO's that want the latest designer looking device. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Also, IT support in the USA is different to other countries/cultures. IT is 80% people and 20% tech know how and application. Users must earn the respect of qualified IT staff, it is not just given out. IT staff do not need to earn the respect of users, although that is obviously preferred. Would A&E depts allow nurses and doctors and surgeons to bring their own devices and rules and way of doing things? If the patient (user) is fighting for their lives they shut the f**k up and are happy to get the repairs done. They don't interject and give 'smart' advice to the medical crews? Face to face visits are still needed just as much as in the 80's; people don;t change much. if you think you can run a light-out approach to human support systems then you are dead in the water already. The bottom line is people just want to to feel involved and valued. Create the IT dept value through discipline and love and it's easy. Give users what they want (what they think they want or need) and your screwed. I prefer if you 'have a nice day' but I don't care if you don't; IF it means the companies data and systems are retained, resilient and sustainable.

ManoaHI
ManoaHI

I think that #8 is not there yet, but it will be someday. The ship is still being designed or may have started to be built, however, not yet ready to sail. I'm not in tech support, and haven't been for my 30 years in IT. I am now a project manager. Once in a while you get pulled into it. What continues to amaze me is the depth of the questions has never changed in the last 2 decades.


1st scenario:

user: My computer doesn't work, please fix it.

me: could you please describe what you are trying to do.

user: it's broken, please fix it.

So, i go off to see the user. The user was trying to get into an app, that used the e-mail address as the user id. The user kept trying their Windows login, when it clearly stated "e-mail address". The user then said, I'm not trying to use e-mail, I need to get into this program to do my work, it's broken. I asked the user to type in his e-mail address and he asks, "who's". Finally I get the user to type in his e-mail address, and then it asks for password. He again tries his Windows password (we never linked the two). I reset the password so that he has to pick a new one, I suggest that he use his Windows password (although bad practice, it would at least be easier). Finally he gets into the app.


2nd scenario:

user: my important file is gone

me: what's the name of the file

user: why does that matter, put it back

me: I need the name of the file to request to put it back

user: I don't understand why you need to, know.

me: we have hundreds of thousands of files, I don't which one you need

user: how can the file disappear?

me: someone might have accidentally deleted it

user: that's impossible

After some more prying, I get the file name and have it restored from backup. 


Now these scenarios played themselves about 20 years ago and two days ago for the broken computer, two hours ago (by a supervisor) for the missing file. Obviously different users, but nothing changed.


My children, one in middle school one in high school are very versed in tech (they started Power Point in the 3rd grade). College students are there already. It will take some time, but until they get into the work force, the ship won't sail.Me: Please n

keith.schmidt
keith.schmidt

@poisson59

I respectfully disagree with your post.  Some things that IT professionals consider "basics" are still things users should be able to do.  You said "...if you _need_ to check your IP address, something is very wrong. And even if you know how, what does that tell you about what you need to do next?"  If a user could check their IP and DNS with "ipconfig" -or even through the GUI- and see that they don't actually have an IP or DNS address, they could check to see if they kicked out the network cable again.  It's the IT guy that should understand the OSI model.  The same would go for keyboards and mice that don't work.  Plenty of people wouldn't know where to plug the cables back in if they DID discover they were disconnected.

I submit an appropriate analogy to checking the oil, tire pressure, windshield fluid and other basic things on a car.  I consider that basic maintenance and troubleshooting.  Dirty oil, low oil, low fluids/tire pressure, etc.  You shouldn't need a mechanic to check that.  Then again, I know many younger than me that don't know how to do these things, either.

Keith Schmidt

Belleville, IL


SirVirtual
SirVirtual

Users grew more knowledgeable and independent.....   Jamie - one of us is living on a different planet.  I was a mainframe programmer in the '80s and have transitioned to a sys admin so I have a somewhat different perspective.  While the technology has changed, in nearly all facets for the good, users have gotten worse.  Many, who are not in IT, and have "grown up with it" think it's ohhhh so simple,  Knowledge and skill?  Thanks for the laugh!  Older users, such as many I support, want the "warm and fuzzy / the computer guy is my buddy" tech support and ask clueless questions....insert Picard facepalm here.

Jamie, please go spend a month or two doing help desk support and I think you view will change.

JonathanPDX
JonathanPDX

"8: Users grew more knowledgeable and independent"

That one made me laugh out loud.

Adrian Watts
Adrian Watts

Good article but i have to disagree with your closing statement. Personal computers are never going to become part of the infrastructure, they are just too complex. Tablets might work because they hide almost everything from the user so require very little 'knowledge' from a user.

The very nature of a Personal Computer, which is a toolbox whereby whatever you want it to do you can just by adding the appropriate peripheral and/or software automatically makes it one of, if not the, most complex item people interact with on a daily basis. They may be fine if it is working ok but as soon as something unexpected happens they need help from an expert the same way cars need mechanics (especially as all new cars have computers on-board) only more so.

The only way to make a PC part of the infrastructure is to make it simple, which is the antithesis of what a computer is for, make a computer too simple and it looses its usability. If you want simple get a tablet.

Keith1958
Keith1958

Not to take anything away from the article, I think it deals with more of the software side of tech support, how about the hardware side? who remembers lugging around a Tektronics 465 scope, soldering iron and a box full of spares to troubleshoot, fix and realign PCs and printers on-site. Today it's a replace the unit and throw away the old.

cybershooters
cybershooters

On #8 - yeah some users grew up with PCs but most didn't.  Also I think that whole thing is now receding, I've noticed recently that it's becoming common for people to not have used a PC at all, they've only used an iPad or a Mac for example and even then only with e-mail and web-based things so they really aren't tech savvy at all.  I think this will increase over time, there will be a divergence between what people use at work and home.

I'd say training is an even bigger issue because the stuff they're using at work is ever more complex.

ccs9623
ccs9623

" A great many of today's users grew up with PCs and are correctly assumed to have a comparatively large amount of knowledge and skill. They're no longer naïve, they're native."

Ah, not always.  There are still a bunch of people who smile and say :I'm not really tech savvy.  Can't you just fix it?"

I'm amazed at how many people need a computer to function but are clueless of even basic concepts such as searching, or checking their IP address.  If I relied on a vehicle to make a living, I think I'd learn how to drive the darn thing!

mdwalls
mdwalls

Your #8 is only half true -- users are more independent, but frequently they are no more knowledgeable than they were Way Back Then.  In some ways even less knowledgeable, since GUIs and increasingly "smart" applications now hide many of the ugly details of using the computing resources.

Otherwise, this is an excellent article.  It's kind of like the annual compilation of "stuff your freshmen never heard of" in higher education.  http://www.beloit.edu/mindset/previouslists/2013/

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

I think number 8 has had the most impact. Most users back in the 1980s were clueless even on how to type! They had to be taught either by using Mario Teaches Typing or Mavis Beacon. They had to be taught the on switch, disk drives, printers and other peripherals. Now most people just want to learn how to use a new app. They already know the basics.

Henriquez
Henriquez

@ManoaHI 

Thank you for the great (if painful to read) examples.  It Is depressing to see that some human behavior -- like willful ignorance, and wanting someone else to make a problem go away -- is still common.   

"Independent" clearly doesn't apply to these problem children, but they do know things they might not have known 30 years back.  You didn't have to explain what a file was, and why it mattered.  Or say, "Yes, you Do have an email address; it's the one with an funny A in it."  You didn't have to find the mouse, plug it in, etc.  Nor did you have to (this one was very popular in the 1980s) explain why saving was important. 

I had neglected to consider the (probably unchanging) percentage of users who resist becoming adults.  They will, of course, be the ones most likely to be seen by tech support, too.  :/


Jaime

keith.schmidt
keith.schmidt

(forgive the clumsiness of the second paragraph.  My editing period expired)

Henriquez
Henriquez

@Adrian WattsExcellent point, and nicely stated, but I think we differ in how we see the evolution of the PC.

As you've defined the PC (a definition I've used myself) you're right, it'll never be simple enough to be infrastructure.  However, people inherently seek efficiency in what they do (we're lazy).  It is because the PC is complex that its most popular functions are often simplified and delegated to purpose-built devices. Slices of the personal computing once performed on a PC have been and probably will be simplified and removed to purpose-built devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.).
.  
I agree that there will likely remain functions that never make it into infrastructure -- being irredeemably complex, or not sufficiently important to the general public. These, and whatever qualifies as the newest developments in computing, will probably continue to find a home in the PC.

Actually, I don't think I said that PCs would become infrastructure; I said networks and -- to an extent -- tech support would.  I'm glad you posted, though, it made me think.  :)

Thanks,

Jaime

poisson59
poisson59

@ccs9623 

Car and computers are often compared, rightly so I think. But sometimes the comparisons are not done properly.

I can drive a car all right!  I can put gas in it (plug it in to recharge), I can buy accessories (apps, software), altho sometimes I will need help for installing them. I think I could do basic maintenance like oil change (defrag, adding memory, replacing a hard disk), but I prefer to leave it in my mechanic's capable hands. However, I lack the knowledge, skills and tools required to do major repairs and upgrades but I can still drive to work every day.

In the 80's, I put together a few computers and fixed a few of my friends'. In the early 2000's, I fryied a CPU because I didn't know it needed it's heat sink. Since then, I am reluctant to do but the most basic modifications. Still, I consider myself an IT professional. But my expertise is not in hardware. Two years ago, a colleague of mine was flashing his Android phone every week with the latest nightly build. Today, he owns a Nexus device that he didn't even root.

You can own and operate a computer without doing many things we IT professionals consider "basic". Searching is like reading a roadmap: it's a skill to be learned. Yet, in everyday life, you can get around in your extended neighborhood without a map. And if you _need_ to check your IP address, something is very wrong. And even if you know how, what does that tell you about what you need to do next?

Gone are the days when personal computers were the stuff of hobbyists or of the office. To most people, computers and smartphones/tablets are now simply tools. Some for work, some for fun, many for both. The automobile became an appliance and sprouted two service segments: auto club and car repair. The computer is there now: it's a small appliance.

Ken Wolf
Ken Wolf

@ccs9623 I have a sign in my office that reads:

"It's not 1989.  The excuse "I'm not good with computers is no longer acceptable".  I am constantly perplexed by users who claim ignorance when trying to perform the most basic of tasks.  Or what should be basic tasks by now.  You are right when you say " If I relied on a vehicle to make a living, I think I'd learn how to drive the darn thing!".  

Henriquez
Henriquez

@Suresh Mukhi I had forgotten about that whole typing issue  :)  Thanks!


Jaime

Worth2Cents
Worth2Cents

@Suresh Mukhi I would say, the basics have become much more intuitive for users to pick up, rather than the users have actually learned the basics. My Mom still doesn't understand how a computer works, but she figured out the major functions of her new cell phone in just a few minutes, and without even looking at the instructions.

thebaldguy
thebaldguy

@Suresh Mukhi I learned the keyboard thanks to Mavis about 1993, but soon accepted the fact that I'm faster with two fingers. Nowadays i program thousands of lines of code a week typing about 30-35 WPM with those same two fingers. ;-)

BTW, excellent article. Resharing to G+.

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

@Worth2Cents @Suresh Mukhi 

Same with my mother in law. She learned to use her cell but if she wants an email sent to someone, she gets one of my children ( her grandchild ) to do it. 

brf531
brf531

@thebaldguy @Suresh Mukhi The most important course I took in High School, as I reflect back on it half a century later, was "Personal Typing!"  :-)

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