Santa's gone

now for the tech geek

Gadget gifts make holiday season the prime time for consultants' house calls


There is no rest this week for the weary geek.

Just ask Kristin Demoranville. The personal technology consultant got her first plea for help on Christmas Day from Jacalyn Gilbertson, a 44-year-old mother of three in Rockville:

"Kristin, Hope you had a great holiday! The kids got some new games. We've had some freezing issues and some delays. Help!"

The requests kept coming. From the family that wants her to teach their kids how to use computers over the school break. The woman who needs a tutorial on running her camcorder. The guy who wants a wireless network for his house.

At a starting price of $129 a call, Demoranville's services don't come cheap, but this week, they're most definitely in demand. Across the country, panicky phone calls and e-mail are flowing in from people who realize they have no idea how to get the newfangled high-tech gizmos they received over the holidays to work.

Not that most haven't tried. Many probably spent days fiddling with some of the season's most popular electronic gifts: MP3 players, the Xbox 360, digital cameras and flat-screen TVs. They read the instructions, pushed every button, plugged in every cable and still nothing.

Such widespread confusion is expected to keep electronics whizzes such as Demoranville busy from now until the end of February helping consumers cope with the post-holiday stress of setting up wireless networks, hooking up entertainment centers, debugging computer viruses, adapting to unfamiliar technology or dealing with untold other digital brain cramps.

"Most of the time when I show up, my clients say, `The cavalry is here!' " says Demoranville, a member of Best Buy's Geek Squad who spends her days driving a company-issued black-and-white Volkswagen bug from home to home solving tech troubles.

"I took a few days off for the holidays, but I ended up working anyway with clients who e-mailed me or called me with questions. It's our busy season."

Gone are the days when a parent's biggest worry was figuring out how to assemble a daughter's dollhouse or construct Junior's model race car.

These days, moms and dads are grappling with digital cameras, digital video recorders, portable DVD players, MP3 players, video game systems, cell phones, personal digital assistants, plasma and LCD televisions and other devices seemingly designed to drive a person mad.

There are 104 million personal computers in use in the United States. By 2009, that number will jump to 148 million, says Massachusetts-based market research firm IDC. Sales of personal electronics were expected to jump by 9 percent this holiday season to $123 billion, the Consumer Electronics Association forecast.

Don Butcher wishes he'd had a tech expert on hand when he was setting up his family's DVD recorder recently.

"I used the instruction manual and had to plod through it for a week and a half before I finally figured it out," says Butcher, 46, who owns a Rockville insurance agency. "You get behind all this burgeoning technology, and you start feeling like a loser."

With the number of home electronic products growing, independent and corporate businesses have popped up to help frazzled consumers at home.

Best Buy snapped up Geek Squad in 2002 and has expanded it into a 24-hour service with thousands of agents. Circuit City, CompUSA Inc., Dell Inc. and others have also strengthened their house call services. Others include Geeks on Call and 3 Geeks and a Mouse.

In the Internet age, the personal tech consultant is becoming as indispensable as service providers such as the family doctor, plumber and mechanic.

For many who seek help, it's just a matter of learning a new toy.

Demoranville spent two hours with Isabel Medrano yesterday, teaching her to use the new digital camcorder the 36-year-old Gaithersburg resident bought herself for Christmas. .

"It's worth the money," says Medrano, who paid a little over $200 to learn to hook the camcorder to her computer, install software, edit video and burn DVDs. "I want to send DVDs of my kids home to my family in Peru and Chile."

Others can't keep up with technology.

"Computer stuff changes so rapidly," says Gilbertson, the Rockville mom who bought her three children Dell computers for Christmas. "You buy it, and it's already changed before you get it into your house. We have basic computer skills, but most of it was confusing. Technology can't be stressful, or else it'll just sit there.

As tech consultant, "Kristin is part of the family now," says Gilbertson, who started working with Demoranville months ago, when she decided to buy the PCs. "She knows our needs. She takes care of it all. She helps us learn, sets things up and explains everything so it's not so scary."

At a rate of $75 for the first hour and an additional $18.75 for every 15 minutes after that, Ray Powell gladly eliminates viruses from his clients' computers, downloads software and guides them through installation problems. On a good day, he can work four or five calls. More complicated problems can take all day.

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