This vision may seem far-fetched, but with the convergence of keyword alerts and virtual worlds, it could happen. In fact, it already happens in gaming environments. Some of the people wandering around MMORPGs (massively mulltiplayer online role-playing games) are hired -- or getting some sort of kickback -- to help.
"The traditional manufacturer's website is likely to go through some major changes," says HP's Potts. That could include avatars. Now where we see only a chat window popup to offer help, we might get a very lifelike avatar with audio and facial expressions.
The hope is that they will better be able to convey the subtlety of human emotion that chat cannot -- a gap that often leads to misunderstandings and frustration. "This would make the online experience more personal," says Potts. But it is a dangerous territory, he adds, because avatars that are too human cross over from warm and welcoming to creepy. "It is a fine line," he says. "These websites are so impersonal. But if you try to make it too personal it gets weird."
Support will become the product
Whatever the technical changes that hit technical support in the future, one thing is clear: The world of support itself is in the middle of a sea change. Today, technical support is offered on a product-by-product basis. But as products become more and more interconnected, support itself will break off from the current model and become a product of its own. "You are not just fixing a piece of hardware anymore," says Worldwide Tech Services' Keegan. "You are keeping a home or small business connected. And complexity is driving demand. The big question is, who will pay for all this complex service?"
The computer manufacture doesn't want -- and can't afford -- to be held accountable for the problems that might happen when a router, fridge, energy management panel, toaster, or toilet is running off the network and managed by its computer. In the current model, when that network-attached toilet no longer communicates with the doctor's office, the consumer is left swinging in a void support between the computer manufacturer, the router maker, the toilet supplier, and the doctor's office. But a new product -- new, anyway, to the mass-market consumer and small business -- will emerge to fill that void: Support as a product. And then there will be an ecosystem to feed these innovations in support.
Few consumers or small businesses today have an IT pro on their cell-phone's speed dial -- though they might have the pool guy, a housekeeper, accountant, and yard worker there. That is very likely to change. "I see this as a real new opportunity where consumers will want someone to come to their house to keep everything connected," says Keegan.
The same model has already happened in corporate IT, where technicians must orchestrate knowledge and skills across a variety of technology products. Even as the techniques and technologies used by corporate IT will change in the coming years, the shift in consumer tech support to an integrated approach will pose new opportunities for today's techs.