'Minority Report' meets PC support

Advanced PC support diagnostics predict when devices are about to fail.

In the 2002 sci-fi flick Minority Report, the so-called "pre-cogs" could supposedly predict crimes before they actually occured. In 2013, Dell claims its technical support opereations can predict product failures before they occur.

Dell's Pro Support Plus system uses online diagnostics that resemble "Minority Report comes to PCs," said Sam Burd, VP & GM, Personal Computer Product Group at Dell in a special Customer Experience show-and-tell session for reporters at the recent Dell World conference in Austin, Texas.

Big Brother -- or at least SupportAssist -- is always listening

The company said its SupportAssist online diagnostic programs listens to the data on enterprise systems and performs remote testing without user involvement. That remote monitoring allows it to predict potential issues and even self-dispatch a tech support phone call or service visit, depending on what is required.

(Upon hearing this, I immediately started worring about privacy issues, but Dell was careful to note that it tracks only system data, not customer data. I'm not sure that explanation would be good enough for me, though, if I was running a shop with lots of sensitive or restricted data.)

The goal, apparently, is to resolve any service issues with as little hassle to the customers as possible. It seems that even when service issues are resolved, customers remain annoyed if they feel the process took too much effort.

That makes sense to me, as I often feel that way when I have a personal transaction that doesn't work according to plan. I imagine that CIOs spending millions of dollars with a vendor don't take kindly to support and repair hassles even if the problems eventually get fixed.

But does it really work?

Of course, in the movie, things didn't go so well. The Pre-Cogs accused Tom Cruise of a crime he hadn't committed -- or wouldn't have committed, or... whatever. The consequences of such errors would be much more mild in the case of predicting equipment failures, but could still result in inexpensive but unnecessary repairs.

According to Burd, though, the numbers support SupportAssist. In what he described as a "nice validation," using the data and Dell's ability to process it through proprietary algorithms, the company can verify that "the things we said would happen did happen...We can look at critical data, run it through our tools, and then with near 100 percent accuracy, see whether it's heat, drive reads," or something else that's causing the problem.

Among other things, for example, SupportAssist has helped create an 85% reduction in the incident rate of customers calling Dell for support. Ironically, the reduction in basic support issues has led to customer concerns becoming more complex, the company said, including the effects of the networking environmnet and heat-related problems.

Disclosure: I was an invited guest at Dell World, and the company paid my travel expenses.

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