Site Lets Service Vendors Bid to Help You

Cross eBay with a free computer support Web site, throw in a diagnostic probe and reporting tool, and what you'd get would look a lot like

NoWonder Inc. announced earlier this month that it has collected $40 million from investors such as eBay Inc. and CNet Inc. to expand services such as its new remote access capabilities for support.

EBay founder Pierre Omidyar will sit on NoWonder's board of directors, said an eBay spokesman.

NoWonder's service works like this: Users with computer problems go to and either search its online knowledge bases, e-mail questions to the site or request live interactive support. Volunteer support technicians usually answer e-mail queries within an hour. NoWonder added the live support option Jan. 12.

For now, all services are free. But later this quarter, users will have to pay for live help, with support technicians competing with one another by submitting bids to customers. But not all technicians will charge for their services, a NoWonder spokeswoman said. "There are people in the Internet community who do this just for fun," she said.

The site shares other similarities with eBay besides the auction model. Users will be able to check ratings of bidders, and NoWonder will charge a fee for every bid transaction, with support providers paying the freight. E-mail support and access to the knowledge bases will remain free, the spokeswoman said.

"This is such a cool idea. I don't know why no one has done it before," said analyst Michael Dortch at the Robert Frances Group in Westport, Conn.

The new model sprang from the June merger of NoWonder and Full Circle Software Inc., both in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Enterprise software maker Full Circle bought the user community site, taking on the NoWonder name and redesigning its business model, the spokeswoman said.

Full Circle contributed its TalkBack diagnostic and reporting tool. The tool has been embedded in software such as Netscape Communicator and Windows 2000 and resides on nearly 30 million computers worldwide, a company spokesman said.

TalkBack collects such low-level data as stack dumps, which are repositories of error information collected when an application fails, he said.

Jon-Eric Eaton, an information technology technician at Tyler Business Services Inc. in Washington, said he tried when a backup server for Tyler's accounting department failed to recognize the domain name server.

His e-mail describing the problem was answered within the hour with suggestions and requests for more information, he said. But after sending a second e-mail, he searched the site himself for information about TCP/IP problems. "One message said, ‘No one ever mentions this, but you have to have TCP/IP and networking files from the same release,'" he said.

A clean install using drivers and Winsock2 patches downloaded from a site linked to fixed the problems, Eaton said.

Letting support staff, with user permission, take control of a remote machine could be useful, he said. But live help via instant messaging would be even better, he said.

"When you call in for help, they tell you what to do, and that changes everything, even if it doesn't fix the problem," he said. "So you call back, and they say, ‘Now, you're case number what?' This would solve that problem."

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