On Call Welcome back to The Register's series of On Call stories from those who have to face the most unpredictable resource in the IT world: the user.
Our tale, from a reader Regomised as "Mike", takes us back to the glory days of the personal computer revolution and the service department of a ComputerLand outlet.
The year was 1982 and Mike was delighted with his workplace. "A fairly amazing place at the time," he said, "that was opening very fancy stores selling the brand new 'personal computer' to the public."
The ComputerLand retail operation was indeed an impossibly exotic place all those decades ago, selling all manner of exciting hardware in a chain of stores across the US. Starting life in the 1970s, it hit its peak in the subsequent decade before sloping into inevitable decline.
"These were fun days," said Mike, with more than a hint of nostalgia. "The Apple II had been out for a while and was selling briskly, Tandy was selling the TRS-80, Compaq had started shipping the Compact AND IBM had just started shipping the IBM PC."
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We suspect he probably meant the Apple II+, which eventually bit the bullet at the end of 1982. The TRS-80 Model III endured into 1983, and who knows what became of that IBM machine.
Stock was flying out the door and into the hands of an enthusiastic public who may not have had much idea how to use the devices, but knew they needed one regardless.
"Almost every purchase," he recalled, "included software to store recipes."
Mike was kept away from the general public, hidden in a backroom fixing borked Apple floppy drives and the occasional overheated Apple III motherboard. It was the job of those on the salesfloor to hold the customer's hand and deal with support.
The Call came in while he was doing "maintenance" on an Apple device running Zork. A customer had bought a system that included one of those newfangled (and very unusual for the time) mouse things, but was struggling to make it work.
A simple fix. Mike had the customer bring the mouse back and swapped it over. The happy camper trotted off to try out their new home computer once more.
But again the phone rang, and the increasingly unhappy customer complained: "The mouse is not working well."
This time Mike asked for the computer back. He swapped it, tested the new one (with new mouse), verified all was working and sent the customer home again.
A third time the customer called, now getting quite irate: "The mouse is going all over the screen, it's very hard to control."
A third time Mike had the customer bring back the entire system. He tested it once again, and everything checked out. The customer had connected the cables correctly and at least appeared to understand that moving the mouse would move the pointer on the screen.
Mike decided to break one of the cardinal rules: invite the customer into the backroom, the inner sanctum of support, to demonstrate the problem.
As Mike watched, the customer sat down in front of the screen and turned on the power. All good so far.
The mouse was reached for... OK...
A shoe was removed... eh?
The mouse put on the floor. Oh dear.
Using a foot to position the wired rodent and toe to click the requisite button, the customer complained "I don't know how people do this, it's really hard..."
"You see in those days," said Mike, "no one had really ever seen a mouse." The customer assumed it worked like a foot control for a sewing machine.
Mouse was introduced to hand and light dawned.
Ever had to help a user left utterly befuddled by what you thought was a straightforward piece of hardware? Share your experiences with an email to On Call. ®