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Software bugs and hardware conflicts are the bane of computerdom. Add a modem and the printer stops working. Fix the printer and the scanner is screwed up. Four hours later your computer is a complete mess.

It's better to prevent a conflict before it happens -- and it would be best to get tech support before your computer goes kaplooey. That's the idea behind an innovative, free software-based service called Attune, from the startup developer Aveo.

Attune, is a watchdog that quietly monitors hardware and software installations much like an antivirus program. Drawing from a database of 1000 common system conflicts, Attune can identify bugs before they bite.

This should sound like music to the ears of software and hardware industry vendors that spend billions of dollars each year resolving equipment conflicts, says Paul Hurley, Aveo chair and CEO. He hopes Attune will also be a hit with consumers who are fed up with tech support and "trying to divine the truth from FAQs posted at help-yourself tech support Web sites," Hurley says.

Attune starts its prevention campaign by taking inventory of the software and hardware installed on your computer. Then it compares that record to Aveo's list of "known issues" that could create a problem in your system.

For example, if you have a sound card that is known to conflict with the latest shoot-'em-up game, Attune will hide a tiny (20KB) message on your computer's hard drive, waiting for the day when you install the game. If you never install the program, you never see the message. But if you begin the ill-fated installation, Attune displays a message alerting you to the conflict.

Aveo calls these messages Intelligrams. Each Intelligram contains a description of the conflict, and most offer links to vendor Web sites for work-arounds or software patches.

Loads of programs can walk you through conflict resolution after a system breakdown, Hurley says. But Attune is preemptive software that addresses the problem before it happens. Two early customers of Aveo, Gateway and Fujitsu, think this is a great idea because now they can solve customer problems before they occur.

"Selling a system that supports itself is money in the bank," says Chris Martin, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group. Vendors can issue alerts to update Aveo's records of conflicts even after a system is sold.

Hurley maintains there are 65,000 known issues with Windows 95 and 98, and admits that Attune can't anticipate them all. His software focuses on the top 1000 Windows problems, which represent about 95 per cent of the calls to tech support.

You determine the system information that Aveo gets. The program doesn't send software and hardware information to Aveo unless you grant permission. Rather, your inventory is compared to its database of Intelligrams. Your computer downloads relevant alerts only, ignoring the rest. But the more information you share with Attune, the more helpful it can be, Hurley says.

Deathly download

The program itself is a gymnasium-size 25MB download from the Aveo Web site. The good news is Attune is free. It also offers an intelligent download feature that will "trickle" chunks at a time so you don't have to tie up your phone line.

I installed Attune's software and everything went well. The program required me to restart my computer twice, then my Windows desktop came back with no trace of the installation. I'd never been so let down after downloading so much. But Hurley pointed out I was missing the point. His philosophy is the more transparent Attune can be the better.

The program runs stealthily with no indication that it's monitoring your system. Only when a conflict is about to occur will you know it's there. The program lets you set privacy levels regarding how much system information you want to share with Attune. You can choose to share everything, or nothing, or anything in between.

About every other time you connect to the Internet, Attune automatically checks to see if there are new Intelligrams waiting for you.

Paying the bills

Hurley started pitching his Attune service to computer makers like Gateway and Fujitsu, which plan to preinstall the software on their systems. But then Hurley saw greener pastures by letting the rest of computer world download his software for free.

The more people use Attune, the easier it will be to get vendors to pay Aveo to deliver Intelligram updates. Hurley hopes companies will see the opportunity to target information to relevant consumers.

In time, Hurley plans to take that idea a step further and sell companies the privilege to suggest solutions. For example, if Attune notices you're running out of hard disk space or your ink cartridge is about to go dry, an Intelligram will not only alert you, it will allow you to go to a vendor's Web site and buy what you need.

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Tom Spring

PC World
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