Postcards

How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Geek Squad rivals: Bring 'em on!

November 17, 2009: 12:28 PM ET

by Jessica Shambora

Watch out, geeks. You've got company.

Yes, Best Buy's (BBY) Geek Squad, whose "agents" drive those Volkswagen Beetles to the homes of customers in technology distress, has competition to contend with: digital troubleshooters who aid consumers via the Internet.

Even as these forces are expanding, it's hard to detect them. For instance, the "solution engineers" of Support.com (SPRT)'s are almost impossible to spot since they work via remote-access subterfuge. Once a troubled tech user downloads Support.com's software, an engineer can access the computer via the Internet to diagnose and fix problems.

Ever stealthy, Support.com's engineers even go undercover as technicians for companies like Staples (SPLS) and Sony. You've seen Office Depot (ODP)'s Tech Depot Services? These friendly folks are actually Support.com's hired guns.

Perhaps you're lucky enough to never have needed consumer tech support. (If that's the case, either you don't own a computer, or you own a Mac). But there's no escaping that our lives are getting more digital every day. And even as we become more tech-savvy and as tech providers improve design and user interfaces, there will always be bugs, malfunctions, spyware and viruses.

There will be updates and upgrades. New platforms and devices to install. Compatibility issues to iron out. Who ya gonna call?

For hardware problems, you can go to your device manufacturer. But let's face it, these days it's all about operating systems, platforms and software: Google's (GOOG) Chrome and Android, Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows 7, Apple's (AAPL) iTunes, Adobe's (ADBE) AIR.

So while the Geek Squad has been the most visible source of help (and no wonder, given the marketing muscle of Best Buy), it's not the cheapest option. Nor the most convenient. Rivals are gaining ground as many consumers no longer need a technician to hold their hand--or simply don't have time to schedule an appointment with a Geek.

Support.com hasn't done well as a stock, in part because it only recently switched from serving enterprises to targeting consumers. Other options include startups like PlumChoice and iYogi. Meanwhile, phone companies are also getting in the game. Support.com CEO Josh Pickus says that Verizon (VZ), Dell (DELL), AT&T (ATT), and Wal-Mart (WMT) are all "poking around in this space."

For more about this hot industry, check out my profile of Support.com on Fortune's Brainstorm Tech site.

Note: Geek Squad offers tech support remotely through a partnership with SupportSpace, which offers services similar to Support.com.

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