IBM offers 'smart' diagnostic tool

Online support "agents" will gather information about the computer, including configuration, files, applications and options, and automatically perform system diagnostics and changes. Customers will be able to choose to download fixes to their computer problems or summon a live support centre technician to help solve the problem. The smart agents will be able to also intelligently identify and update the latest problem-solving tools from the IBM support site. IBM licensed the e-support technology and tools from Support.com, a Web-based support infrastructure software developer.

Dave Hume, IBM's director of services development, described the diagnostic tool as a means to supplement, not supplant, customer support over the phone.

"What we're doing here is allowing the Support.com agent to diagnose common software configuration problems," he said. "Say you're a traveling [executive], a road warrior with your ThinkPad, and you're not surrounded by your support staff. Downloading and installing a driver or a DLL file could be intimidating when your technical expertise is not deep."

The diagnostic tool will be shipped as a free addition to new computers, beginning with certain models near the beginning of the third quarter, he said.

To protect consumer privacy, users will be able to set the frequency of their computers' connection to IBM's databases and the kind of information sent. The privacy issue raised by this kind of software is of growing concern to IT managers, said Tony Adams, a senior analyst at technology market research firm Dataquest.

"The good news is that the big vendors aren't selling this information," he said. "They have more to lose by far than they'll gain. They have too much to risk in backlash by selling this information." Adams said users should encrypt the data sent if possible, but that "this kind of data sent is not the kind of data hackers could use, unless they're very sophisticated."

Home PC users and small-business owners with only a handful of computers who need a low cost, high-impact way of resolving complexity on the desktops will best benefit from the diagnostic tool, Adams said.

As complexity of computer configurations increases, diagnostic tools like this will likely become requirements, Adams said. Human computer technicians -- a scarce commodity -- simply won't be in large enough supply to be able to assess the impact a change will have on individual systems with tens of thousands of variables.

"What other vendors have said is that these [diagnostic] systems don't save us money, but they transfer money to a scalable area," said Adams. "It will supplant a lot of human labor that doesn't require a lot of know-how."

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