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I haven't bought new pants for years, why do I have to keep buying new PCs?

Friends and family tech support meets steam-powered computing

On Call It's a friends and family episode of On Call today, dedicated to the moments when one's attempts to render IT assistance are met with bafflement or just plain hostility.

Our story takes us to the mid-1990s and a reader Regomised as "Liz" who had just landed her first IT gig in a rural US computer store. The magic words "I'll work for free" were apparently what swung things for her.

Unlike her burger-flipping peers, Liz found herself helping out with all the different tech jobs in the store, from dealing with networking for local businesses to updating kit for customers. "Once," she said, "one of my coworkers gave me the precious gift of letting me hold the very first brand new Pentium processor we had just gotten in, even though I was too low on the food chain to get the cushy job of building a new system.

"Heady stuff!"

Heady stuff for Liz's family too, who were "of course delighted to have an adorable pigtailed baby techie to provide them with free tech support."

The undoubted downside of "knowing a bit about IT."

While Liz was happy to show Grandma how a mouse worked, things got altogether more intense when it came to getting her uncle surfing the web.

The uncle was a mechanic and had built Liz a car from components that were scattered around his yard. A bit of cash across his hand, and she was mobile. Any help keeping the contraption on the road was, however, off the table: "He had made it very clear I was to take the car to a mechanic thereafter because he wouldn't be offering free repairs or even repair lessons."

Still, a car is a car and Liz was both grateful and keen to help out in return for the wheels.

However, when she answered the call to help get her relative online she found herself confronted by something considerably older than that shiny new Pentium in the store: "I was faced with a hopelessly outdated 286 system, which I'm sure still worked fine for word processing and solitaire."

The uncle had managed to get hold of some RAM that would work on the ancient board and Liz had no problems fitting it. Anything more, however, was very much pushing the envelope of what the long discontinued chippery and the OS that could run on it would handle.

As carefully as she could, Liz explained that even if she could source an old enough copy of Netscape that could actually run on the system, the graphics-heavy nature of the World Wide Web – even in those days – might make the experience... less than optimal. A replacement was needed and she specced up something that would do the job while not costing anywhere near the amount demanded by her co-workers for fancier rigs.

"He got increasingly upset," she told us, "and finally roared at me about how he had 10-year-old cars that still ran just fine!"

Liz snapped back: "That's because they don't repave the roads every other year with special asphalt that requires everybody get new tires, only they don't make the new tires to fit older cars!"

She stalked home, arriving in time to hear her mother's side of a heated phone call with the uncle where another analogy was being tortured in order to drive the point home: "She was telling him he wasn't poor and could damn well afford to buy a power saw like everybody else, rather than whining about how unfair it was that somebody told him he shouldn't try to cut down a tree with a hand saw."

And so it came to be that Liz's cousins were soon to be found playing Tetris on a brand spanking new Pentium desktop.

"Thankfully, though," she said, "between my uppity mouth and my uncle's pride, I was never again 'asked' to do free tech support for him."

We've got pants that have lasted longer than some computers, thanks in part to the excesses of the likes of Apple and Microsoft. Ever had The Call from a family member, mown down by the march of progress? We had one just last night. Share your story with an email to On Call. ®

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