I don’t have a huge number of friends but those that do like me and trust me enough to ask me for computer help. That, or they are just too cheap to call a professional.
Part of the problem is, it’s horrible to try to fix someone’s computer over the phone. I get a headache just trying to talk someone through the menus, the options, the dialog boxes. It’s painful, and rarely successful. So they tend to think less of me at the end of it, which I wouldn’t mind so much but that their opinion of me was pretty low already (“You’re a technology columnist? What kind of job is that?”) . Even if they bring their computer around it’s usually something I can’t fix, or even figure out most of the time. If I do figure it out, they give me a hug and then promptly forget about it (or else tell all our other friends how hopelessly geeky I am because I fixed a computer.)
Another part of the problem of being a tech repair guy is you’ve got to know what questions to ask. It’s like being a doctor. It’s no good assuming your friend was doing something normal with the computer when it broke. I’ve learned that much. They were probably using it as a doorstop, trying to make bread with it, licking the screen, or trying to fold it where it shouldn’t be folded.
But of course they won’t tell you outright. Much too embarrassed that a) they were doing something that might have at best voided the warranty, at worst broken the law and b) their ignorance would be exposed by venturing any explanation. So you, as the doctor, have to ask the right questions, such as “What exactly did you touch when it went, as you describe it, ‘pflitz’?” One friend could only get certain keys on her brand new laptop to function, so I went through lots of complicated tests to establish which keys actually worked. (A diagonal line to the right from the E,R and T keys, if you must know.)
I played around with everything until it eventually occurred to me to ask whether she had spilt anything on the keyboard. “Yes, some water,” she said, innocently, as if it happened all the time (which it possibly did). “But I wiped it all off.” Aha. She needed a new keyboard. That took about an hour out of my life, and my entreaties to her to drink over the sink and not the laptop in future fell on deaf ears. Tip: If you’re fixing someone’s computer, ask them first, not just “what were you doing with your computer when it went ‘pflitz’?” but “what did you do and where did you go today?” Chances are you might get some clues about what really happened to the computer (including visits to the toilet, bathhouse, pub, Disney World, Mud Wrestling World Championships, whatever.)
And to my friends: Please feel free to call me with computer problems, but be honest. If you used it as a frisbee or as a curry plate, let me know. It really helps.