Ever since the first personal computers were released, they’ve completely changed the way we do business. The modern accessibility to computers and the internet means bright young individuals are starting hugely profitable enterprises from their bedrooms. In fact, in 2016 a business without a website is barely considered a business at all! As the number of computers and users in the world has gone up, the need for tech support has also increased, and various factors have called for new, sophisticated methods. In this feature, we’ll have a look at some of the ways tech support has changed over the past few decades.
One of the big changes you hear about from veteran support workers is that tech support is no longer bound to specific tasks. In the eighties and nineties, computers were specialised equipment, found mainly in offices and educational institutes. You were considered a serious nerd if you had one at home, and to make matters worse it was almost impossible to get any help! The first generation of personal computers used software and hardware which were very rarely compatible with the tech being used at work. While your company would usually have a dedicated helpline, if you were trying to do anything at home you were usually out of luck. Tech support workers could fall back on saying “if you’re not using it for work, it’s not my problem”. Since then, support for home, work and school has been meshed into one.
The gradual development and spread of networks has also had a big impact on the tech support industry. As IT support became less and less bound by time, location and task, PC networks were becoming more and more common within educational institutions and businesses. This shift was something of a chicken-and-egg situation. The rise of PC networks was both the product and the instigator of many of these changes. In the early nineties, the main reason to network PCs together was local and physical. Networking was needed so that multiple users could share big, expensive tools like laser printers, or access certain databases. From there, networked PCs have spread out, and become more and more like remote terminals. Their functions became gradually more geared towards communicating with other users, and accessing distant databases. While this has made some aspects of tech help more complicated, it’s also established certain standardised constants, and given rise to outsourced IT support.
Image: Public Domain Pictures
Standardisation in general has been one of the major factors which has changed the way we think about IT support. With networks becoming more commonplace and widely adopted, the eighties and nineties saw a quick adoption of appropriate standards. Every kind of network relies on certain standards to function at all, and new hardware and software introduced new incompatibilities. This, in turn, lay on the pressure for more standardisation. Basic standards such as Ethernet and TCP/IP were introduced in the mid-seventies, and were soon adopted by businesses and schools all over the world. This replaced previous local network tools such as Novell Netware and AppleTalk. The spread of these early networks also mounted pressure on software and hardware manufacturers to literally put aside their differences. At one time, Intel and Motorola were fierce competitors, and always trying to out-do each other’s chip sets. Storage drives came in different forms, and file formats were often exclusive to the program that created them. Now that pretty much all of these inconsistencies have been standardised, IT support has become much more straightforward.
Perhaps one of the most revolutionary changes we’ve seen in the past thirty years is updates becoming possible over the internet. When PCs were a relatively new technology, any kind of updates and upgrades had to be delivered by professional tech support. These updates were pretty infrequent, and whenever there was an issue with some hardware or software you simply had to sit tight. From the eighties onwards, hacking, viruses and malware burst on the scene, and became more sophisticated at an alarming rate. From there, antivirus software and operating systems had to be updated more and more frequently. Around the same time, broadband was invented, and provided a much more streamlined and convenient way for delivering updates and new software. Now in 2016, it’s pretty rare for anyone to go a week without some form of update going on in the background of their devices!
One significant change, which a lot of us seem to forget about, is that everyone became gradually more independent and knowledgeable when it came to their computers. Back when PCs were some new, revolutionary technology, they barely made it past the walls of isolated data centres, and most people barely touched them for fear of breaking them! This meant a lot of fresh business for tech support businesses, but it also meant their resources were extremely stretched! In the mid-eighties, it wasn’t uncommon for support workers to have to talk a CEO through using a mouse! The fact that this is a bizarre image shows us just how far we’ve come. A large part of the modern millennial workforce grew up knowing how to use PCs, and as a result there’s very little hand holding and training. Give any modern ten-year-old a packaged PC, and they’ll have an easier time with it than any adult from the eighties.
Finally, tech support has become more and more integrated with the modern IT infrastructure. Standardisation, accessible networks, and a whole generation of native PC users have given rise to scripted help desks and FAQs. It’s extremely rare for an IT problem to necessitate a visit from a professional. Even when you can’t figure the issue out through the magic of Google, you probably have some resident computer guy who will get the issue fixed in an instant. He training for IT support workers has become far more accessible and universal. This is why we often speak to someone in the same county on the phone, and later someone in India about the same problem. This has made support more straightforward for the user, but a little lonely for support workers!