Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 133 / SEPTEMBER 1991 / PAGE 65

A new meaning for online help. (online services)
by Denny Atkin

It's 9:45 on Friday night, and you can't get your new Windows spreadsheet to print sideways on your ink-jet printer. The software company's offices won't open again until Monday morning, so you can't call the technical support line. What will you do?

You could try calling local bulletin board systems and posting a plea for help there, but the odds are pretty slim that someone else in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is using the same hardware and software combination that's troubling you now. You'd better call a national service, where you're more likely to find someone familiar with your problem.

The first place to check is in the technical support chapter of your program's manual. If the company has an online support round table, chances are good you'll find it listed there. If not, log on to your favorite network, open your terminal program's capture buffer, and get a list of all of the special interest groups (SIGs) on the network. Log off and peruse the list offline, looking for SIGs that cover topics related to your problem. Since you won't feel the "time is money" pressure checking the list offline, you might find more areas appropriate to your problem.

Once you find a SIG that might help with your problem, all you can do is upload your problem and hope that someone answers you in time, right? Wrong! Why wait for an answer that might already be there?

Many online services will let you search message categories for occurrences of a specific word or phrase. If your service of choice has such a feature, use it to search for an appropriate word--in this case, perhaps sideways or printing. If not, then open your capture buffer and invoke a nonstop read command of the messages in that particular category. Close the buffer, log off, and load the capture file into a text editor.

You can now use your text editor's search command to hunt quickly through the file for words that might flage a message that relates to your problem. With any luck, one of these methods will find a message relating to your problem and how to solve it.

If not, thoughm don't despair. Chances are you can leave a message online and still get some helpful advice before your deadline.

Check for a support area for the publisher of your spreadsheet program. If that turns up nothing online, check for a Windows support area. If you're on BIX, you'll find IBM.WINDOWS. On CompuServe, there's the MS Windows Advanced Forum (WINDAV), the Windows New Users Forum (WINNEW), and three Windows third-party forums (WINAPA, WINAPB, WINAPC).

If you don't have any luck there, find the general forum for your computer platform, in this case an IBM compatible. On BIX, check IBM.PC; on GEnie, go to the IBMPC Roundtable at page 615; on CompuServe, check the IBM Applications forum (IBMAPP); and on People/Link, GO IBM. You might also want to see if there's a SIG run by your printer manufacturer, since you're having a printing problem.

Hooray! You've found a topic discussing your spreadsheet program. The next thing to do is to compose a message describing your problem and asking for help. It's smart to leave messages in more than one area, in the hope that more people will see your message and you'll be likelly to get an answer faster.

When you type your message, make sure you provide all the necessary details. Include your hardware configuration, DOS version, software versions, and any TSRs or other applications you may be running at the time. Explain exactly what's happening when the problem occurs. The more detail you provide, the more likely someone will come up with a solution for your problem.

If you post your message in more than one SIG, though, don't leave the same long, detailed message in each one. That would be costly to you and to the people who have to read your message over and over again. In the other areas, post something along these lines: "I'm having problems printing to my Howitzer BJ-220 printer using the Aileron for Windows spreadsheet. If you think you can help, please see message 42 in the Windows/Spreadsheets conference."

You could ask that any helpful hints be sent via electronic mail, which would be easier to check the next day, but then you'd be depriving others of information that could potentially help them later.

Next, you log off and go to bed. The following morning you log on, and someone has referred you to a new printer driver that you can download on that service. You grab the driver and install it, and your spreadsheet prints beautifully. Even if somebody didn't leave a solution to your problem, chances are good that you'll find some hints that will help you isolate the problem.

The next time your work comes to a grinding halt due to a technical problem at a weird hour, don't get ticked off; log on instead.

Send comments and suggestions to DENNYA on BIX and GEnie, DENNY on Plink, or 75500,3602 on CIS.