Such a conversation would also go on between you and your device. Maybe your printer could alert you that it needs supplies, so users don't ever trek down the hall to their local printer and find their print job is in queue awaiting a toner replacement. "Your printer could text you an alert that it is running low on toner," says Potts. That way you can pick it up while you are out instead of returning to your office to find you can't print.
Mac OS X offers such a supply-status-notification facility, although the message is displayed only on the Mac, not emailed or texted to you. And network printers such as those from Brother International for some time have had the ability to send email alerts of status reports or unusual network activity indicating a hacker probe. So the concept is in use, just not broadly.
Tech support hero #4: An easier way to replace parts
When problems are caused by faulty hardware, no amount of connecting to the Internet will fix it. A part replacement -- today or tomorrow -- is still a part replacement. Right now, high tech is made up of components. And when something breaks, it often requires a technician -- or a user with above-average technical skills -- to replace components. And that leads to an expensive, annoying process that demands a technician be dispatched to fix the problem.
"In the future, machines will be made up of four -- or five or six -- modules. So if something breaks, you will get a CRU [customer-replaceable unit] sent to you," predicts Brendan Keegan, president of Worldwide TechServices, a provider of outsourced service technicians to major high-tech companies. Replacing a CRU will be about as hard as playing with Legos, he says: "If your RAM goes bad, the company might send you Module No. 6 to replace the RAM and a couple of other things. You pop the old one out and pop the new one in. And you are done." Keegan predicts a greater push to a world of CRUs in the immediate future, but he says any change of this magnitude will take years -- perhaps a decade -- to become commonplace.
Tech support hero #5: Robots that do the hands-on support
Sometimes technical problems -- especially if you are dealing with persnickety medical machinery or large network installations -- require that an expert see the equipment in use in order to diagnose a problem or teach users how to use it. He or she might need to watch how hospital staff members use the equipment or coach an IT manager through a setup. To do this the expert needs to be in the room, silently following the techs around, offering instruction, and pointing out mistakes.
One day soon that expert might arrive via FedEx. And the expert might be able to be at more than one site at a time, courtesy of robot surrogates. At AnyBots, robots are helping people communicate remotely by providing videoconferencing that can walk around an installation site. These movements of these bots are controlled by the expert wherever he is or she is, while at the same time providing the expert eyes and a voice right on the working floor. "I think the possibility for technical support is one of the coolest applications we are working on," says Trevor Blackwell, the founder of Anybots. "We are looking at supporting medical equipment where technicians have to go to it and look at how it is being used and see that the patient is being loaded in it correctly."
These robots, which start shipping in the fall, will cost about $15,000. That's a lot of money. "But not compared to medical equipment or a large server installation," Blackwell argues. And folding one up and shipping it to a site -- while the live technician stays home, tending several of these bots -- will be easy: They each weigh only about 35 pounds.