Microsoft has quietly launched a support website where experts charge $99 for one- or two-hour sessions designed to rid PCs of malware, speed up a machine or solve problems with Windows or Office.
Answer Desk debuted with no fanfare from Microsoft, which has not deigned to mention the new service in a press release or promote it on the front page of its domain, or even, surprisingly, on its consumer-slanted Windows website.
One of the few places the service does appear is on the Microsoft Store site, where Microsoft sells its own software, the Xbox game system and select OEM's Windows desktops, notebooks, tablets and smartphones.
The new support option is so low-key that Microsoft apparently scrubbed a Dec. 9 blog announcing Answer Desk. The blog, penned by Blake Morrison -- listed on LinkedIn as a Microsoft senior support escalation engineer -- no longer exists on Microsoft's TechNet blog network, although a cached edition was still available Tuesday morning.
According to Fusible.com , Answer Desk launched last Wednesday. Previously, the same site had reported that Microsoft had acquired the domain last September from a firm called NameRally, a Los Angeles, Calif. "domain parking" company.
The name of the site is clearly a reference to the Answer Desks at Microsoft's 14 brick-and-mortar stores that the company has modeled after rival Apple's "Genius Bar" in-store tech support.
Rates range from $49 for an hour of personalized training to $99 for one- or two-hour tech sessions that focus on cleaning a PC of malware, tuning up a system for maximum performance, or answering questions about Office, connecting to the Internet, and managing files and photos.
The first chat with an Answer Tech is free, according to the site's FAQ , but additional sessions must be billed to a credit card.
Even that complimentary chat may cost users money in the end, said Microsoft in the FAQ. "If the Answer Tech cannot resolve your problem during that [complimentary session], and one of our service offers is appropriate for you, the Answer Tech will detail an offer and provide explanation of the service," stated the website.
Although Answer Desk touts its 24/7 availability, from about 6 p.m. PST to 10 p.m. PST Monday, the site said all support specialists were busy.
In most cases, said Microsoft, the technicians will use remote control tools to commandeer the user's PC in order to walk them through instructions or service the system.
Microsoft's venture into paid support competes with its own free support, which covers calls about Windows upgrades and its software bought at retail or from the company.
But there are hints at a possible consolidation: The online chat option for Microsoft's Consumer Security Support Center , a resource for users who suspect that their PCs are infected, now redirects to Answer Desk.
Microsoft declined to answer questions about the service, including whether the Answer Techs are employed by Microsoft or are instead independent contractors who receive part of the billed amounts.
The company also declined to explain how Answer Techs qualify for the position, and why the company has not promoted the service.
"Microsoft is always looking for ways to make support easier for customers to access and this is part of that commitment," a spokeswoman said in email. "We have no additional plans to share at this time; stay tuned for more information."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
Read more about it industry in Computerworld's IT Industry Topic Center.