Computerized, On-Line, and Tangled in a Web

COMPUTERS are such precise things. Logical. Mathematical. So it's not surprising that their arrival is usually heralded as a sign of progress. Sweep out the cobwebs. Eliminate the chaos. Bring on the new.

Unfortunately, there are times when these machines sweep in the cobwebs. Lately, it has been pretty gossamer around here.

Take my Twinhead notebook computer. A few weeks ago, the hard drive began acting up. I could turn on the machine, but it refused to recognize the drive. I pulled out the manual, my Norton Utility disks, and tried everything I could think of. No go. So I called the dealer who sold me the machine, who introduced me to Hanson of technical support.

Thus began an extended camaraderie, more out of necessity than anything else. After my first call, the notebook stopped working completely. I sent it off to Hanson, who tested it and retested it. Last week, he gave me the bad news. The hard drive wasn't completely bad. It just didn't work some of the time. It wasn't the motherboard (that thin green board at the bottom of all computers). It was something soldered to the motherboard, which meant replacing the whole thing.

The cost to fix this little glitch? (The machine's warranty ran out six months ago.) At a minimum, $750, Hanson tells me. So begins this long exchange of rueful phone calls. Hanson retests the hard drive. Do I want to replace it or try coaxing my data out?

Around we go, Hanson and I. Can I upgrade to a faster chip? A larger hard drive? Should I just give up and buy a new machine (for an extra $700 or so)? Of course, prices will drop so maybe it's better to hang onto the current one for another six months. They say computers bring people closer together. Hanson and I are just trying to extract ourselves from a computer web.

Of course, that's only a web a deux. The patterns are more interesting when three get tangled up.

Several months ago I wrote about an electronic-payment service called CheckFree. It's a good idea: Use your computer to pay your bills, schedule payments weeks or months in advance. No more stamps. No more checks.

Days after that column, a reader named George Spitzer messaged me that he had since run into extraordinary problems with the service and finally quit. When glitches started showing up in my CheckFree account, I called him. ``Everything is great as long as you don't have to use people,'' he says. ``Once you're off the program track, it's extraordinarily frustrating.''

The problem usually starts when a vendor, a credit-card company, for example, sends a statement with a hefty finance charge, claiming you didn't pay last month's bill. You check with CheckFree, which claims they made the payment. You check with the credit-card company and they say they haven't got it. And suddenly there you are - computerized, on-line, cutting-edge, and completely helpless.

The problem may lie as much with the recipients of electronic payments as with CheckFree itself. Many are still not used to receiving payments from an electronic bill-paying service. According to Mr. Spitzer, who tracked down the whereabouts of his payments, they often got shunted to special-account divisions.

In time, I suppose, these glitches will be worked out. Michael Sapienza, the company's marketing vice president, says most users are so pleased with the convenience of CheckFree that they'll put up with one or two bills a year that get loused up.

Well, maybe. After I got charged for a third nonpayment of a bill I had sent through CheckFree, I quit the service and went back to writing checks and licking stamps. You could call it a paper jungle. At least it's not a computer web.

* Send comments to CompuServe (70541,3654), Prodigy (BXGN44A), or via the Internet (laurentb @delphi.com).

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