A question made famous at the top of eBay's auction site -- "What are you looking for?" -- may soon become familiar to online users seeking technical support as well.
Marketplaces for technical support are launching in early 2000, with a number of dot-com start-ups becoming brokers for support services.The sites are also deploying a variety of proprietary monitoring and remote-support technologies.
The support systems will work via e-mail or a technique similar to instant messaging. Users type out a question, which pops up on support providers' screens; the providers then send back competing bids. Software within the system determines the appropriate technical support providers to be contacted.
Sites also will include ratings of providers similar to what buyers and sellers now find on auction sites such as eBay.
Although the brokers are targeting small companies without IT departments, the concept may also appeal to larger corporations.
"We call it fine-grained outsourcing," said Allen Bonde, director of Advisory Services at Extraprise Group, in Boston. "This sort of service would allow an IT department to outsource on a case-by-case basis. First a company could point to the outsourced provider, and if there is no solution it escalates back to internal support."
Two dot-com start-ups, ExpertCity and NoWonder, will offer brokering services to link users with support providers.
In the first quarter of 2000, NoWonder will turn its free technical support volunteers loose as fee-charging freelance support providers. NoWonder will also give the service providers and users free access to its TalkBack desktop monitoring technology. TalkBack collects information on data points in a system, everything from screen settings to a history of the user's most recent actions.
Microsoft is licensing the TalkBack technology and will implement it in Millennium, the upgrade to Windows 98, according to Chris Derossi, founder and chief technology officer (CTO) at NoWonder.
ExpertCity, a start-up funded in part by Sun Microsystems Inc., went live in December with its site, offering the same brokering services as NoWonder and the use of its technology, Desktop Streaming, for screen sharing. Desktop Streaming allows screen sharing between the expert and the customer.
"It's as if the technical support person is sitting right next to the user," said Klaus Schauser, founder and CTO at ExpertCity.com.
However, not everyone sees the benefits of bidding for technical support.
PCSupport is an online support service with its own service technicians that will go live with a fee-based system next quarter. According to PCSupport officials, validation of providers and accountability is missing in the broker services.
"We believe the broker model will provide challenges on customer service and quality," said Cliff Rowlands, vice president of marketing at PCSupport.
ExpertCity Inc., in Santa Barbara, California, is at http://www.expertcity.com.
NoWonder Inc., in Sunnyvale, California, is at http://www.nowonder.com.
PCSupport Inc., in Vancouver, British Columbia, is at http://www.pcsupport.com.