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Dell's support button dream turns into user nightmare

Patent granted, button dismissed

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Dell has received a patent for its once highly touted E-support button - a tool which appears to have caused more support problems that in it solved.

On 12 August, the US patent office approved Dell's claims for a "method and system for automated technical support for computers". The method is long and involved, but the system is simple. It's a reset button on steroids. With but one push of the button, a user initiates a set of diagnostic functions to discover whether hardware or software is at the root of a problem.

Dell first unveiled this "feature" back in 1999 with the launch of its WebPC. One of the key advances Dell claimed with this sleek system was the E-support button that would run diagnostic tests and then connect users to online support for help. The WebPC lasted but a few months, and the E-support button met its maker a short while later, despite also being included with the Dimension 8100.

Rather ironically, the very button billed as solution to support nightmares has been the root cause of myriad support problems, as users tried to upgrade their PCs.

"Can anybody help on this annoying problem," asks Macshac on a Dell message board. "I have just installed XP as a dual boot on my dimension 8100 on a separate drive, so it was a new install, the device manager has identified an unsupported device yet as far as I can tell all my hardware is working ok, it could be something inside but so far I cannot find it ."

Volcano11 does not mince words in his reply.

"The unsupported device is likely the useless E-support button on the front of your computer tower," he writes.

A Dell moderator later pops on the message board to confirm that Microsoft has not supported the E-support button in Windows XP Home or Professional. A numbers of users have complained of their E-Support button conundrum, asking, "Can I turn it into a reset button?" That would be more useful.

Dell has failed to return calls seeking comment on the lack of support for its E-support invention. As far as we can tell, it killed the device in July 2001, when Dell stopped its complementary Resolution Assistant service.

The self-defeating support button would be only mildly amusing were it not for the language used in Dell's patent.

Dell is not known as an R&D powerhouse, but, in this case, its engineers have been busy. The patent filing shows that they spent countless person-hours reading about PC diagnostics and operations. Never has a list of prior art been so long.

We hope the Dell engineers received more than minimum wage for their efforts because they were thorough in their work.

The Dell staffers note that the PC has become an increasingly common device in both businesses and homes. The problem is that while the term PC "implies a generic device", the little buggers actually come in all different shapes and sizes. Even the Wintel king admits that various processors, operating systems and software run on PCs. The variety of PCs out in the world has made fixing a PC a difficult process.

The E-support button, however, can help.

"In one embodiment a method for automated support is provided in a computer system having a service button and a controller chip set," the patent states. "The method includes the steps of pressing the service button, setting a first bit in a general purpose input register in the controller chip set to generate a first interrupt signal in response to the pressing step, receiving the first interrupt and determining whether the computer system is booting, and if the system is booting then initiating a service application routine in a first manner, or if the system is not booting then initiating a service application routine in a second manner.

"A method is also provided for automated support of a computer system having a controller chip set including the steps of pressing a service button, setting a bit in a general purpose input register in the chip set, generating a first interrupt of a first type as a result of the bit being set, and initiating a service application in a manner dependent on whether the computer system is booting or not."

Folk in the server realm will be familiar with Dell's tactic here, and the company surely uses some of the same technology on its non-PC hardware. With any luck the server version of the E-support button is a tad more sophisticated than its PC incarnation.

In the end, it turned out that the E-support button was much in simplier in form and function than described by Dell and likely did more harm than good. It received top marks from the press, but little praise from users.

Dell might have once seen it as a way to trim the company's ever-shrinking bottom line. Won't the support calls be short when the help desk can cut to the chase with a button push?

Sadly, the E-support panacea covered in patent 6,606,716 was but a dream. ®

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