Net Tech Support That Takes over Your PC


Sitting at a beachside café sipping cappuccino in sunny Santa Barbara, Calif., Andreas Von Blottnitz looks like just another surfer dude, with his wavy blond hair and chiseled cheekbones. But talk with him for a few minutes, and his straight posture, careful movements, and intense gaze soon belie the carefree image.

Yes, he does surf, but Von Blottnitz, the former CEO of AOL Germany, has come to California to build Expertcity, a small customer-support software and applications company that has generated a lot of talk in the cyberworld. The company is licensing a "screen sharing" technology that allows anyone logged on to the Net to share control of her desktop with tech-support personnel in remote locations.

ARMY OF TECHNICIANS. It's a unique application that has attracted some impressive investors, including Sun Microsystems and ZD Net, which collectively have sunk $30 million into Expertcity. For now, the company won't reveal revenues, but Von Blottnitz predicts Expertcity will be profitable within 16 months and has enough cash on hand to hold out longer than that. The company has already served up 1 million help sessions to clients since it started in 1998. And more than 100 corporate customers have signed up to either license Expertcity's system and service platform or outsource their tech support to the Santa Barbara company's army of freelance technicians.

It's a tough area in which to carve out a new niche. Software giant Symantec, which makes a competing package called PCAnywhere, is pushing hard to make inroads in the same corporate market for remote-access customer support that Expertcity has targeted. And even if the company's patents are approved, the concept behind its tech is so intuitive that other companies are likely to be already making similar products.

Still, many analysts like Expertcity's odds. "They have a strong technology that is definitely needed in the marketplace," says IDC Senior Analyst Ana Volpi. And that marketplace is growing fast. Yankee Group estimates that the Web-based customer-support applications-and-services market will jump from $500 million in 1999 to $2.5 billion in 2003.

SIMULTANEOUS VIEWING. Founded 18 months ago by a German computer-science professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Expertcity builds Internet software and applications that connect individual computer users with technical-support consultants in real time. Here's how it works: Let's say a user of an IBM laptop has a question about configuring his printer-driver software. He would go to Expertcity.com on the Internet and register. As part of the registration process, the laptop user would download a tiny Java program that allows Expertcity's "experts" to actually view his computer screen on their own monitor. The techies, most of whom work on a freelance basis, might specialize in anything from specialized programming languages such as C++ to spreadsheets. (Expertcity screens and interviews these experts to ensure their competency.)

To find an expert who can help him, the IBM laptop user types a question in a designated dialog window in his Web browser and waits for solution bids from various experts to appear in a dialog box on the Expertcity site. He selects one of the bids. (Expertcity customers can view an expert's customer-satisfaction ratings, much as eBay users can view ratings of auctioners.) After agreeing on terms of payment, ranging from a per-minute rate to a flat fee, the expert would ask if he or she can take control of the IBM user's desktop.

Using the screen-sharing application, the expert could remotely move the customer's cursor, open files, or do anything the user on the other end can do. All of the expert's movements are visible on the screen. And these movements occur almost as quickly as if the customer were moving the mouse -- a major improvement over remote-access technologies that have long been plagued by slow response times and poor connectivity.

SNAPSHOTS FOR SECURITY. Expertcity works just as well over Internet connections powered by slower dial-up modems as it does over lickety-split broadband connections, Von Blottnitz says. And the company's customers can keep a record of their support session with screen-by-screen snapshots, in case they want to review them later. To maintain security, all of Expertcity's help sessions go through the company's servers, and snapshots of each session are recorded by Expertcity. The company makes a 30% commission on each help session.

Sound neat? Sure, but not neat enough to be a stand-alone business, Von Blottnitz says. After building AOL Germany into a business of $150 million in yearly revenues, Von Blottnitz took over the then-consumer-oriented Expertcity in 1999. He recognized that he needed to diversify its revenue stream -- and fast.

So, he devised a three-pronged attack. The first, the consumer customer-support portal, will drive awareness and, Von Blottnitz hopes, build revenue. Bigger money could come from licensing deals to third parties, such as Cox Cable and Gateway, for their call centers.

TRAVELING SERVICE. And Von Blottnitz has an ace to play at the end of January, 2001. The company plans to roll out an Internet-based service that will allow travelers to remotely access their primary PC over any Net connection with minimal hassle and no installation of big software packages to clutter up the desktop. The connection will be enabled by a programlet that requires less than a megabyte of memory. Von Blottnitz boasts that the service will dramatically undercut the $183 price tag of PCAnywhere. And it could trump Symantec, since Expertcity doesn't require major downloads and is much easier to install and configure on a desktop.

For its part, Symantec claims its application is better-suited to corporate IT departments that need to maintain fleets of PCs in the field. And, says PCAnywhere Product Manager Dave Scott, his package offers better security and industrial-strength tools that win over network administrators. For example, Net administrators could install PCAnywhere en masse over corporate networks using existing network-privilege lists. "You can leverage existing user lists on a system for installations," Scott says. He claims the next version of PCAnywhere, to be released in February, 2001, will make installations even easier.

The big question is whether Expertcity's business model will have staying power. "What remains uncertain right now is what is going to be the winning business model for getting this technology to market," says IDC's Volpi. Still, no one in the market has yet matched Expertcity's technology. Now Von Blottnitz must show that he's as adroit on the Web as he is on a surfboard. By Anita Chabria in Los Angeles


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