1 SEPTEMBER 2007, Page 17

Calling in the Geek Squad

Edie G. Lush tests a home-help service that can solve the biggest problem of modern life — how to connect your computer to all the other gizmos in your house Ivhy would anyone choose to spend an afternoon with a self-proclaimed geek in a clip-on tie, who calls himself a `field agent'? Carphone Warehouse is betting that many of us will jump at the chance. They've brought the Geek Squad over from the US and are offering their nerds to UK consumers and their computers.

Two thirds of Britons now own a PC and nearly as many of us are connected to the internet, 73 per cent via broadband, and increasingly we are using home networks. That's where the demand for the Geek Squad begins. When your personal IT dream turns sour, you face terrible choices. Consult the manual (if you can find it), call a help line that may or may not help, phone a friend, hurl the offending device out the window — or call in the Geek Squad. Founder and 'chief inspector' Robert Stephens says, 'Our message is that you can throw the manuals away. The only way you learn how to deal with the ins and outs of computers these days is by spending every Saturday night in. Our customers can leave that task to us.'

For a mere £99.99, a field agent will come to your house and set up a new computer, broadband or wireless connection or help you back up your data. Even better, if your internet connection works, a 'covert agent' can access your computer remotely and remove viruses, clean up redundant files and install software — a snip at £49.99. They'll also advise you for free before you buy new bits of kit as to what and what not to go for. Their hope is, of course, that you'll call them when you can't figure out how to plug it in.

Britain's invasion of the Geeks is part of a joint venture between Carphone Warehouse and the US consumer electronics giant Best Buy. Carphone Warehouse-style stores (known as Best Buy Mobile) are sprouting in New York — soon to spread across the US. In Britain, home-tech gurus are now available to visit any computer inside the M25; in a few months they'll reach the rest of the UK.

My own geek experience was very positive. A South African, Marcelo, arrived on a scooter a few minutes early for my appointment. 24 THE SPECTATOR 1 September 2007 Within a couple of hours he'd networked three computers, analysed my five-year-old laptop's turtle-like speed problems, helped me back up my Outlook files and fixed a damaged display driver that had baffled several other alleged experts. On his advice I purchased some extra memory — and when I failed to install it, he returned to finish the job. He used normal words, explained what he was doing, and — most importantly — never made me feel stupid. Les Wadeson, chief operating officer of Geek Squad Europe, says he spends most of his time hiring the right people. 'A lot of techies struggle with customer interaction. We have to have people who love giving out knowledge as much as they love the technology itself.'

But even with all that talk of love, the Geek Squad doesn't always get it right. In April this year a US Geek Squad employee was arrested in California for covertly recording a 22-year-old woman with his mobile phone's video camera as she took a shower. Stephens says he's surprised the incident didn't bring more negative press. 'Maybe the US public believes that one bad egg out of 12,000 agents isn't too bad. In general, the uniform tends to be a litmus test. If you're too cool for a clip-on tie, you probably take yourself a bit too seriously to be a Geek.'

The Geeks are not without competition in the UK. DSG International — owner of Curry's, Dixons and PC World — has launched The Tech Guys. BT's Home Advisor service offers remote support and, with a week's notice, home visits. There's also Geeks on Wheels, and a lot more. Stephens isn't worried. 'A rising tide sells boats. We're aiming to be the most expensive computer support in the UK because we want to provide the best service. When service is your only means of revenue, you're either good or you don't make it.'

The Geeks' partner, Carphone Warehouse, took a beating recently on its own service record. Last year, when it offered 'free' broadband to customers who signed up to its £21 per month fixed-line TalkTalk service, it was unable to cope with the take-up. It acquired double the number of expected subscribers, creating a huge backlog in its service and call centres. Such hiccups are inevitable in fast-moving markets, but with technology becoming ever more integrated into our lives, and easier to use, how long will we need the Geeks? Stephens says that the hardware is getting cheaper by the day, but getting all your different gizmos to work together is more complicated. Wadeson adds that if you look into the future of what our homes are going to look like, you very quickly see past home theatres (linking computers and wide-screen televisions) into a world of home automation. WiFi intercom, light switches and security systems will all soon be part of the networked home.

So if demand isn't a problem, where are the Geeks headed next? 'If we can solve your problem by controlling your mouse remotely,' says Stephens, 'we can deliver services anywhere on the planet.' As to where the Geekmobiles might be offering their field agent services, 'wherever broadband is growing the fastest, the Geeks will go'. If you combine that with Carphone Warehouse's European hubs, you immediately get Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden. What's the Swedish for geek?