Microsoft tech support bot goes rogue

Pressed for explanation, Microsoft support chat bot concocts its own Office 2007 download rules

Gripe Line reader Dave recently became entangled in a particularly frustrating experience with a Microsoft tech support chat bot that left him angry and in disbelief.

"I recently upgraded my computer to Windows 7 from XP and needed to reinstall Office 2007 Pro," he explains. "I couldn't find my original files right away. So I went to Microsoft's download page to download it again." But he couldn't find it anywhere, so he started a chat with a service representative. That conversation left him irate and penning a strongly worded letter to the Gripe Line.

[ For a look at where tech support is going, read Christina Tynan-Wood's "The (better) future of tech support." | Frustrated by tech support? Get answers in InfoWorld's Gripe Line newsletter. ]

His service rep -- we'll call him Hal to complete the "2001: A Space Odyssey" allusion -- greeted Dave politely and with enthusiasm.

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"Very good morning, Dave," he began, and got right to the point: "I understand that you would like to download Office 2007 Professional in order to reinstall it again."

Dave agreed that was why he was seeking help.

"I'm sorry, Dave," responded Hal. "Office 2007 is no longer available for download."

Dave argued with the chat bot, citing the ad copy on the 2010 products, which, he said, "advertises that if I download it, I can download it again at any time. Is this not true for 2007?" He provided a link with an example of this claim.

"Dave, it states that if you purchase Office 2010, you may download Office 2010 at any time," Hal offered patiently. "That does not apply to Office 2007."

Dave was angry now, sure that this claim was part of his understanding of his Office 2007 purchase. He asked Hal if -- by that logic -- would he be able to download Office 2010 in the year 2013.

But Hal was slippery. "You will be able to download it as long as it is available for download," he announced cryptically.

Dave and Hal went back and forth like this for a while. Hal was unemotional and refused to budge from his position. Dave was increasingly irate. Then suddenly, Hal announced that Dave was welcome to come back at any time -- and he left the session. This did not improve Dave's mood.

Dave found his original files eventually, but he did not recover the temper he had lost in his transaction with Hal. Instead, he wrote to me to intervene. I forwarded his letter to Microsoft to find out whether Dave had any recourse but to upgrade (as Hal had suggested) in the event that he hadn't found those files.

It turns out that the problem was not with the download system at all. Rather, Hal was making things up.

A representative told me, "We have the site, which lets customers download Office 2007 software if they need to re-install it (though they'll need to enter their product key)."

Microsoft is still looking into why "Hal" is giving out bad information.

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