January 20, 2005

Retail geeks aren't geeky enough

Author: Jay Lyman

You can find ample and able Linux and open source software support from a range of places, but if my recent check on Linux support by Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, and even Dell is any indication, don't expect to find any support from mainstream retailers.

Maybe you've seen ads for Best Buy's Geek Squad, technicians who make IT house calls driving logo-emblazoned Volkswagen New Beetles. Neat concept, but how geeky are these geeks? I figured I'd call with a Linux support question and inform them that I had installed the open source operating system on the Windows machine I bought from them.

A call to the nearest Best Buy gave me an automated reference to the company's "24-hour computer support task force," promising Geek Squad services over the phone or in my home. The task force's automated answer was amusing, advising in electronic voice that if I wanted to hear a malfunctioning computer thrown by catapult into a pool of piranha or to hear the "soothing drone" of a 1942 supercomputer, I could press number 4. It did sound like it was authentic, but I quickly proceeded to talking to a human to see if there was any Linux support to be found there.

I was routed to a live operator who asked what my problem was. After being initially impressed that the Geek Squad billed for software service on a per-issue basis of $160, I was quickly reminded why I thought this might make a good article.

"I forget what Linux is, is it a router?" the representative asked.

I responded that it was an operating system and I had installed it on one of the computers I bought from Best Buy. After asking again whether anyone might be able to help with Linux support, the young man politely informed me that it was a long shot.

"Most [of our geeks] work with Windows," he said. "A limited number work with Mac. I'm not even sure they work on Linux."

After putting me on hold to see if I could be helped "in-store" with my mysterious Linux problem, the Geek Squad guy said they didn't do Linux support, but that I could call the local store.

"If they have an agent who knows Linux, they might be able to help you," he said. Then he asked, "Have you called Linux themselves?" I fumbled around for a negative response before contemplating an explanation, but decided against it and hung up.

Calls to three local stores in Oregon proved somewhat disappointing, as the dreaded Linux (incorrectly pronounced L-eye-nux) bewilderment continued. The first store, in Portland, routed my call to computer support, which rang indefinitely with no answer. The second call was to the Best Buy in Beaverton, home to the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL). However, during regular store hours on a regular business day, there was no answer, no answering service, no re-route -- nothing but ringing. I tried a third store and told a gentleman that I was having a problem with my Best Buy computer running Linux. He told me to hold on while he checked with his technicians, then routed my call to, unfortunately, more endless ringing. Just as I was about to give up, a customer service representative picked up, listened to my dilemma and routed me to a technician. That young man said he had never used Linux himself, but gave me the name of a local Geek Squad agent who might be able to help. The funny thing was the man was referenced as "Agent" such and such, as if I would be contacting a local FBI officer.

I called back to the Geek Squad with the name, and when I repeated my issues -- problems connecting to the Internet with my Linux machine -- the phone representative indicated he was calling my agent to see if he could help. It turned out that the agent dabbled in Linux, but hadn't worked with it in a long time (whatever that meant). However, he did know of another local agent who worked with Linux every day. While the phone rep tried to reach him, I waited on hold again with the Geek Squad's big band music. The experience ended with some hope for Linux support; Best Buy assured me that this geek agent knew Linux and could help me if I left a message.

Short Circuit City

Instead I pushed on to another big electronics retailer. The call to Circuit City's computer services began hopefully as I was quickly routed to "one of the computer guys," but when I mentioned Linux, I could almost feel the lack of understanding flowing through the phone receiver.

"We offer service on computers to install software, but for Linux ..." said the representative with pause. "It's totally different software. I don't know if we can work on that."

Still, after asking whether there was anyone there with the Circuit City crew who could help with Linux, I was told to try back at noon. Apparently, the normal Windows geeks go to lunch then and let the Linux guy have his crazy hours. I tried back at noon, but the guy who supposedly wasn't dumbfounded by Linux could not be found again. In fact, the next guy who answered my computer service call told me, "None of us here really know Linux. We don't carry any of that software," he added.

Comp US no way

The same drill with CompUSA was quick and efficient. I rapidly learned that there was absolutely no Linux help from these guys. A call to the local store's service department revealed the company's 24/7 "dial-a-tech" support over the phone, chat, email, or the Web. But I soon found out that service was limited to Windows and Mac, as the representative I reached said there was no support, "not for Linux." At least he knew what Linux was, but when I asked whether there might be anyone there who could help me, he simply said, "unfortunately not." I asked if he might have any ideas on where I could find help and he gave perhaps the most constructive advice of the experiment: "Maybe find a Linux support group online or something."

Dell: Direct and denied

After reaching the biggest computer service outfits around, I figured I owed a call to Dell, since so much computer hardware comes from the direct-dealing company. An acquaintance told me Linux support, for which Dell used to have some credibility, was one of the reasons he chose that hardware. However, his experience proved to be similar to mine in this experiment, he said. Nevertheless, I wanted to see what would happen if I called regarding problems with the Linux software I put on my Windows XP machine from Dell.

As I was figuring out what problem to present and how to ask about Linux support, I was informed by a recording that Dell technicians would not assist with any software that was not factory-installed on the computer. For assistance on that, the voice told me, I should contact the manufacturer of the product. But wait, wouldn't that be Dell? It was another circular stiff arm for Linux support.

Good thing I know plenty of people willing to help with Linux and other open source software support, some for little or no cost, but just the satisfaction of spreading software freedom. However, for the masses of regular folks out there who do not follow the software industry fanatically -- some of whom may be purchasing Linux in machines at Wal-Mart or online -- geek support still has a long way to go.

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