Calling All Geeks

At the office IT will handle it, but when the home network is down who do you call? These two businesses are on-call, and they don't come cheap.

Want to connect your Canon digital camera to your Dell computer and use a Linksys router to wirelessly send the images to your HP printer? Well, good luck with that. Unless your neighbor's pasty-faced kid spends his waking hours playing Halo 2, chances are you'll need to call someone. But who? HP? Linksys? Dell?

Even as our computing lives become more complex — with music and photo add-ons, spyware, and the like — tech companies have been very savvy about shuffling customers off to email, the Web, and Bangalore call centers. Anything but taking responsibility for the problem. No wonder, then, that frustrated consumers have driven tremendous growth in third-party in-home tech support.

"We're bringing the house call back to American society," says Robert Stephens, the founder of Geek Squad, one of the early entrants into in-home tech service. Says Matt Nelson, a spokesman for rival Geeks on Call: "A lot of our success, and the success of our competitors, has been due to people recognizing the value of having someone come into your home or office, shake your hand, and provide you with down-to-earth customer service."

That's right: There are two emerging national services that cater to nontechies in need. Geek Squad, which began modestly in Minneapolis in 1994, has mushroomed of late under its corporate parent Best Buy, which bought it in 2002. The electronics retailer has rolled out a Geek Squad in each of its 716 stores in the United States and Canada. Dial an 800-number, and if you can't be helped on the phone (a $29.95 call), a black-and-white VW Beetle will show up at your home. The geek, looking like a cross between Sergeant Friday and a Mormon missionary, can handle anything from networking to fixing a fried hard drive. Geeks on Call, which began in 1999, boasts 332 franchises in 22 states. Its techies drive PT Cruisers and seem like extras from an early '90s Gap ad.

Both have been ringing more doorbells for several reasons. The number of home networks is expected to rise to more than 40% of U.S. households in 2009 from just 9% today, according to Forrester Research. And laptops, which are much more difficult to repair, have eclipsed desktops in both sales and use.

The biggest challenge facing these companies is not demand but cost, says Ted Schadler, a principal analyst at Forrester. "Can they provide a service at a price that the consumer is willing to pay?" A basic house call from Geek Squad is $129; Geeks on Call hits you up for $99.

With more tech on the way, though, the geeks are looking to inherit the earth. Says Geek Squad's Stephens: "The only people who have time to learn all this stuff are geeks who stay home on Saturday night."

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