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Get Me The Geeks!

This segment was originally broadcast on Jan. 28, 2007. It was updated on Dec. 30, 2007.

It's hard to say exactly when it happened, but sometime during the past ten years, most of us involuntarily surrendered a big chunk of our lives to computers, and to other networking devices that contain computer chips. We're talking laptops, desk tops, cell phones, BlackBerrys, PDAs, and remote controls -- anything that needs to be programmed, requires technical support, and can crash, die, or merely freeze.

As Steve Kroft reports, that always has a way of happening at the worst possible moment, and for most of us there is only one solution: get me the geeks!

We are becoming slaves to our own technology - addicted to and dependent upon all sorts of beeping, flashing gadgetry that is supposed to make our lives easier.

But it has become so complicated to set up, program and fix, that most of us don't know how to do it, giving rise to a multi-billion dollar service industry populated by the very people who used to be shunned in the high school cafeteria: geeks, like Robert Stephens.

"It takes time to read the manuals. I'm gonna save you that time cause I stay home on Saturday nights and read them for you," Stephens says, laughing.

"You and the rest of the geeks," Kroft remarks.

"There's millions of us out there across the country," Stephens says.

And 12,000 of them work for Stephens, the founder and chief inspector of "Geek Squad," the tech support company he founded 12 years ago while he was still in college and sold in 2002 to Best Buy.

Whether his geeks are making service calls in their Volkswagen Beetles or toiling over the 4,000 frozen, infected computers that pass through a facility near Louisville every day, they all wear the same uniform - white shirts, white sox and black clip on ties. It's a look Stephens borrowed from NASA engineers.

"It looks a little weird walking down the street, 'cuz people think we're gonna hand out bibles. But when you see like 20 of us walk into a bar and start you know ordering beers, it looks like an FBI raid," Stephens tells Kroft.

He says the biggest complaint about tech support people is rude, egotistical behavior and the uniform is designed to impart a dose of humility as they work their wizardry.

"I mean, there's usually some frantic civilian at the door pointing at some device in the corner that will not obey," he explains. "And we've gotta make sense of it. And, you know, hygiene provides bonus points if I don't smell bad. I mean, literally, that was my business plan. Just be nice and fix it."

Asked if people are grateful, Stephens says, "Oh, of course. If you look at like the focus groups or whatever, people will say, 'Savior,' and, 'They saved me,' and, 'They saved my data.'"

"This stuff's irreplaceable. Your master's thesis that you've been working on for six years that you, that you promised yourself you'll back up next week, we have saved more MBA degrees in this country than anybody," he adds.

Stephens says the company has become indispensable. "Because I don't think that the pace of innovation is going to slow. I don't think people realize the Internet revolution hasn't even really started yet," he explains.

A dozen years ago, when Stephens started the Geek Squad, most people used IBM computers, and primitive Microsoft software; the Internet was still a novelty. Today, thousands of products and providers allow you to watch TV shows, make phone calls, download music, print color photos, and dictate letters without leaving your desktop, if you have the time, the patience, the aptitude, and the available brain cells to master yet another software protocol.

David Pogue, who has authored computer books and writes a weekly technology column for The New York Times, says the revolution is still a work in progress.

"Part of the problem, when it comes to computers at least, is that there are so many cooks for what you are using. Microsoft made the operating system, some company in Taiwan made the equipment, you're running software from a company in California, and now you're installing the driver for a digital camera from a fourth company. You know, what are the odds that all of these are going to work flawlessly together for all 400 million people who have PCs? Zip," Pogue says.

"So, what do you do?" Kroft asks.

"You get unhappy. You develop software rage," Pogue says.

Anyone who has ever called a toll free help line knows what David Pogue is talking about, and it doesn't seem to make any difference whether you are talking to someone in Delhi or Dallas.

Software companies will try and convince you it's a hardware problem and hardware companies will do the reverse. According to one survey, 29 percent of all callers swear at their customer service representative, 21 percent just scream. The rest presumably are too exhausted to do either.

All the inconvenience and stress are a hidden tax on the low, low price you initially paid for the computer - the profit margin doesn't allow for customer service.

"Honestly, where do you go if you can't get it work? People buy this stuff and then [get] dropped. Where do they go for help?" Pogue asks.

It is this market niche that the geeks have filled. With more and more households discovering a need for tech support, they've become as valuable as a good plumber or electrician. On the low end, there are teenagers like Brandon von Koschembahr, who will be happy to come over and bail you out as long as it doesn't conflict with his shift at Starbucks. He can do it all, lives right down the street and his rates are reasonable - small market share.

On the high end, there is Paul Austi, geek to the stars. He will buy and install and all your electronics, integrate TV, cable, DVDs, music, climate control and lighting onto a single custom-built remote that even Kroft could operate. And all of this can be had for just a few hundred thousand dollars.

"How hard is it for an average person to go into a store and buy a high-def TV set and come back and work it," Kroft asks.

"I would say, in my client base, it would probably be less than five percent," Austi says.

Robert Stephens of the Geek Squad says more than a third of the wireless routers and modems purchased at Best Buy are returned because people think they are just too complicated.

"There's the do-it-yourselfers. There's the do-it-for-me. And what we're discovering is the even bigger market of 'I-thought-I-could-it-myself' crowd," Stephens tells Kroft.

New York school teacher David Barkhymer, who considers himself a bit of geek, fell into the last category: he spent three days trying to hook up his new 32 inch HDTV, plodding through menus and a manual that was almost certainly written by Korean engineers.

He finally gave up and sought profession help.

Dr. Donald Norman is an uber-geek - a professor at Northwestern University and one of the preeminent engineers in the country. He helped set the technical standards for high definition television in the U.S., but he had to hire a geek to set up his own TV.

"When people call up geeks to come and fix something or install it, a lot of them seem very apologetic for not being able to do it. Should they be apologetic?" Kroft asks.

"Absolutely not. No, it's not their fault. It's the damned designers of this stuff who have no understanding of real people, everyday people," Norman says.

Dr. Norman says the technology changes so fast and the competitive pressures are so great that products are pushed into the marketplace before engineers had a chance to simplify them.

"Someone complained to me, 'You'd need a degree, an engineering degree from MIT, to work this damn thing,'" Norman says. "Well, I have an engineering degree from MIT. And I couldn't work it."

Norman says one of the problems is function creep, adding all sorts of features that people don't want, don't need, can't use, and don't even know they have. For every new feature, there has to be a new button. And they keep getting smaller and smaller, and harder to read.

"Forty-eight buttons on this remote," Kroft points out, looking at one model.

"Yeah, and 48 buttons all the same size and shape. Now, you're not a technology designer, but let me just ask you intuitively, which buttons on a DVD television should be the most important and large?" Pogue asks.

"Off and play," Kroft replies.

"Right," Pogue agrees. "And beyond off and play, perhaps channel and volume. Find the volume buttons on this remote. Go. It's blaring, your wife is screaming; find the volume buttons."

It turns out the volume buttons were buried on the remote.

You might get used to it if you only had one remote, but a collection is the standard. Pogue says, "This is I suspect the situation most people have on their coffee tables."

You can buy a universal remote now for a few hundred dollars, but you don't even want to know how complicated it is to set up. Almost everything has a computer chip in it now, including toasters.

Then there's iPod's, cell phones and digital cameras, even dishwashers and refrigerators that need to be programmed.

"Why do I need a computer in my refrigerator?" Kroft asks.

"Well, you don't. But you bought one that does have a chip, so you're on the cutting-edge. Just be glad that you didn't get the one that requires an Internet connection. There are three of those now," Pogue says.

What do they do?

"It's absolutely amazing. When you run out of something, it knows, and it creates a list for you. A shopping list. So you can even hook it up to, let's say, one of the online grocery store delivery systems, and you're in business," Pogue says.

"So what's really gonna happen in 10 years is, all these things are getting smart," says Norman. "The kitchen appliances will talk to each other. Can you imagine, you go to the refrigerator and it says, 'No. I've been talking to your scale - that's not on your diet?"

It's enough to make you want get in your car and drive as far away as you can get from all this advancing technology, providing you're not doing it in a Mercedes, Audi or BMW: all have elaborate onboard computer systems, that may require you to navigate a number of different menus just to turn up the temperature or to tune the radio, not something that is recommended while you are driving along at 65 miles an hour.

Tom and Ray Magliozzi, a.k.a. "Click and Clack the Tappet brothers," review automobiles on National Public Radio's "Car Talk."

Asked why manufacturers have made these cars so complicated, Tom Magliozzi says, "Because the technology was there."

"Well, if you're buying a 50 or $60,000, or more, car, you don't want pedestrian-looking buttons. You want something sophisticated, and something that the average car thief maybe can't figure out," Ray adds. "If have a seven-series BMW, you just can't hand someone the keys and say, 'Oh, take my car.' Well, they're not going anywhere with it. 'Take my car. But, oh, you have to come to the tutorial first.'"

This of course is all great news for tech support people who teach, install, program or upgrade software and operating systems and make their living on crashing technology. Right now, there is plenty of job security - every two months something new comes out and their whole job changes. You could call it the revenge of the geeks.

"The geeks are ruling the universe," Kroft remarks.

"Yes," Stephens agrees. "But it's like the Greeks used to talk about the philosopher kings. Geeks have no interest in power. The only power we're interested in is low power consumption and longer battery life and low prices so we can stay up later at night. Geeks have no desire - geeks may inherit the earth, but they have no desire to rule it."
Produced By L. Franklin Devine

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