Super Shareware Support- by Bob Smith

When things don't go right with your software, it is something you want dealt with now. And yet, sometimes it is almost impossible to get support for your favorite program, especially if it is shareware. Sometimes you send e-mail, which doesn't get answered; sometimes the answer doesn't reflect the problem; and sometimes you are stuck without any idea of where to send a yell for help.

One shareware author that hasn't left his users out in left field for support is Nick Knight, developer of MR/2 Internet Cruiser Edition (MR/2 ICE). Knight has established a mailing list that currently has about 300 members, where problems, suggestions, gripes and a lot of education generate about 100 messages a day across the 'net.

"My goal was to reduce the amount of time I personally spent supporting the product through one-on-one responses," Knight told e-Zine! recently. "With a mailing list, answering one user's question ends up getting read by everyone on the list."

Knight also gets a lot of help in providing support. "I hoped that subscribers would also pitch in and share their knowledge, and they have," Knight explained. "It's worked out great!"

Several members of the mailing list agree with Knight. Judith Russell, a history teacher with three years exposure to computers told e-Zine! how good she thinks the support is. "The support is fantastic. He [Knight] is clear about what he considers important now and what can wait a while. He makes no promises he doesn't mean to keep. Earlier, he said MIME and uudecode would have to wait and they did. But others posted some work-arounds. When someone sent me a file in binhex, a post meant for someone else with a similar problem showed me how to deal with it."

Knight, a computer programmer with Secant Technologies in the Cleveland, Ohio area began MR/2 as a QWK reader for BBSes and when he got into OS/2 and involved in the Internet, expanded it into MR/2 ICE to deal with Internet mail reading.

Support for new programs is always tough, but new beta shareware has to deal with not only "bugs" but also trying to firmly define the niche the product will fill and finding out what the users really want. "I was receiving literally THOUSANDS of emails a month," Knight said, "many that just couldn't be answered. Imagine the time [required] to answer each of those notes personally and in detail. I've always been careful about over-using the newsgroups for support purposes, so I decided to explore mailing list software.

"I tried an existing package but couldn't get it to work. After receiving no response from its author, I started calculating how MR/2 ICE could manage such an application. It's pretty easy to do, after mixing in a little REXX," Knight explained.

Mailing lists are not all that unusual on the Internet; in fact both of Knight's main competitors, InnoVal Systems Solutions, Inc. and SouthSide Software, maintain similar lists for interested users of their products. SouthSide Software, aside from maintaining a FAQ list for PMMail v1.5 questions on their WWW home page, also maintains an e-mail discussion list for its customers. Their list currently has about 130 subscribers and the authors are frequent contributors as well. Dan Porter, President of InnoVal, explained that their list is also popular, but the casual user often finds the traffic on such a list to be overwhelming. In a different strategy, InnoVal expects to have a searchable database which will answer most common questions about the Post Road Mailer available directly from it's web site by summer '96. And of course, both companies monitor usenet news groups and supply one-on-one technical support.

Still, in the general realm of the 'net, Knight's list appears to be unusual in the volume of mail it has generated. The mail on the list is very focused on the quirks of MR/2 ICE (which should go to Version 1.0 on May 8th) and the way it works on the many varieties of computer machinery out there in the world.

The mailing list has been an apparent success; literally worldwide response has been forthcoming. Daniel Docekal, a Networking expert from Czechoslovakia told e-Zine! why he is a member. "MR/2 ICE is the only OS/2 Internet program which currently supports our character sets," he said. "It (the mailing list) is a valuable reference place, except people are sometimes a bit overreacting in some cases, but otherwise it's a valuable place. Before I had to send everything directly to Nick."

It is the sense of community which surrounds the mailing list which seems to be its biggest attraction. All the messages go to all the members, unless they are specifically addressed to only one. Those who can explain solutions, or make suggestions or carp about perceived problems do so. Like a newsgroup (which Knight has also established to form an archive of all the message traffic in the mailing list), anyone can reply; Knight only interjects when he has the "straight skinny" or information on the progress of "bug fixes" or updates.

I don't have a lot of experience with newsgroups, CompuServe groups, or other mail lists, so it's hard to compare Knight's list with other efforts at the same process. But, other lists notwithstanding, Knight's seems to work the way lists should work: helping users make the most of their software and perhaps learn more than a bit about their operating system in the process.

And the stream of messages goes on, day and night, over 100 per day. Printing problems, setup confusion, multiple accounts, comparisons with other programs, and many other subjects crowd the list. Inexpensive software doesn't have to mean "cheap" support; Knight has proven that point with his superior use of a system available to everyone.

 * Nick Knight
Bob Smith is a 15 year veteran as a USAF pilot, retired from the Fire Service as an Arson Investigator and Fire Chief in a small city in California, USA. He is currently working as a photographer and computer consultant and has been using OS/2 since v2.0.

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