Amateur Support – The Only Kind There Is

I was reading this article on the BBC about people providing IT support on the side and it struck me that there’s a bigger thing going on here than simply offering a bit of help to a clueless neighbour.

I have a love/hate relationship with helping people with their computers. I imagine that in the same way as specialists in fields of medicine (neuroscience, or plastic surgery, say) probably get pestered by friends asking them what to do about their piles and whatnot, so I get regular requests to mend desktop PCs. I’m neither qualified, nor even very able to do this, but most times I lend a hand. True, my time as a sysadmin was fairly close to IT support, but setting up slapd or editing zone files is rather different from working out how to get Word to stop crashing.

What I found interesting about the BBC article was that the writer made a point of putting his actions in the context of a lack of manufacturer support for home, and even business, computing. When I look back on how I found out (and still find out) about things, I’m struck by how infrequently I’ve relied on commercial support for products. In fact, I’m also struck by the fact that when I have relied on commercial support, it’s been really awfully bad, or simply non-existent.

The vast majority of my education about computing in the general has been from loose online support communities: bulletin boards, websites and Usenet. When I was doing sysadmin stuff, and much to my surprise a the time, the efficacy of big, expensive helpdesks for systems like iPlanet Server, Oracle and WebLogic (for which we had big, expensive “support contracts” to access) were usually slower and less helpful for most things than a simple couple of posts on Usenet.

So when I read the article about “unofficial” support, it struck a chord. If effective support for commercial software cannot be sold to consumers then that’s yet another good reason to use FLOSS. What a pity the writer missed that angle. And what a pity we can’t point that out.