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.