It's no surprise that software companies are keen to fob off as much of their tech support as possible to automated systems -- support is a cost, not a profit centre, unless you charge an inordinate amount for it.
It's also not much of a shock that many of these automated systems are rubbish -- after all, if these companies could write decent software in the first place, they wouldn't need such complex dedicated support tools, would they?
Nonetheless, I'm still slightly surprised at just how many of these troubleshooters/virtual technicians/excuses-not-to-employ-an-offshore-call-centre can't get even the basics right.
In particular, it amazes me that they can't make use of the actual error codes generated by the software itself in an intelligent way.
I've encountered two examples of the problem recently. The first is with a piece of software that I've criticised on many occasions before: Microsoft's sorry excuse for a synchronisation manager, ActiveSync.
In my installation, this product has a nasty habit of refusing to synchronise and generating obscure error codes. Not only are these error codes entirely absent from Microsoft's knowledge base support site, they also appear to have no effect on ActiveSync's built-in troubleshooter.
Even if you run the troubleshooter immediately after the error has been generated, it reports that everything is working fine. Not so much a troubleshooter, then, more like a smokescreen.
Microsoft isn't the only company with this kind of problem though. McAfee recently updated its range of security products, forcing all current users -- myself included -- to download and install the new version. That would be fine, except that my installation decided that it hadn't been verified, and notified me as such.
Clicking on the "Verify this subscription now" link generated a singularly hopeless error message, telling me that this wasn't possible right now. If it continued to not work, it suggested, I should reinstall the product.
Having only just done that, I decided to dig a little deeper. There was absolutely nothing in McAfee's support base that I could locate about verification problems, so I tried running its "Virtual Technician" to inspect my installation.
Yet again, it failed to even notice the error message the program had been throwing at me. I did end up having to reinstall the product, which was annoying and tedious and probably would have convinced a less technically-minded consumer to ditch McAfee and see if Microsoft could do a better job with its own security tools. Doesn't seem very likely, though.
I'm no expert coder, but I would have thought the first thing any analytical tool would do was check existing software error logs. Maybe they're saving it for the upgrade.