Microsoft introduced a little piece of error-repair software called Fix It about two months ago with little fanfare. Though it's flying under the radar now, the tool could become an important part of Microsoft's arsenal going forward, and eventually significantly cut the amount of time it takes to resolve computer problems, without the need to consult byzantine online forums or call tech support. That is, if Microsoft can execute on its vision.
Right now, the idea behind Fix It is to offer automated scripts to repair computer problems Microsoft has documented in its Knowledge Base, a large online repository of product and troubleshooting documentation that users are often prompted to consult after their computers have a problem. With Fix It, a user with a problem can go to the Knowledge Base site, look up the appropriate issue, and download a tiny program that will patch the Windows registry or otherwise correct the problem by automatically carrying out steps recommended in the Knowledge Base article.
Going forward, however, Microsoft hopes to build these automated fixes into Windows and other products. Microsoft eventually even wants to make Fix It proactive, so that users with known issues like hardware conflicts get notified of potential problems and are prompted to download a script before an error even occurs.
"Until we can really pull that automation back into the product experience, we still have a suboptimal experience because you're still requiring the customer to recognize they have a problem and then search and get to a Knowledge Base article," Lori Brownell, Microsoft's general manager for product quality and online support, said in an interview. "The next stage of our work is not just scaling out our Knowledge Base automation, but how do we pull that back into the product?"
Microsoft already has begun building Fix It into applications, rather than forcing customers to search through the knowledge base for solutions to their problems. Already, there are 17 Fix Its available for Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Internet Explorer through Windows Error Reporting, which sends crash information to Microsoft. When those 17 issues occur, after submitting an error report to Microsoft, users will be prompted with a Fix It suggestion.
Eventually, Microsoft hopes to get Fix It to work before a problem manifests itself. If Microsoft is aware that customers with similar hardware configurations as yours are experiencing driver conflicts under certain circumstances, the company could proactively offer you a patch, Brownell says. However, though Microsoft already is busy working with the Windows team on this scenario, Brownlee readily admits privacy-control issues, like how Microsoft would handle configuration data or allow customers to opt in and out of the program, first need to be smoothed out.
Brownell's Fix It team is working with the Windows Fundamentals team responsible for Windows 7's Action Center -- a feature designed to give users more control over the security and system maintenance notifications they see and respond to and that automates some troubleshooting -- to try to make Fix It a feature of Windows 7 sometime after the release of the new operating system.
In the interim, as Microsoft builds out diagnostics that could be potentially included in Windows down the line, the company may host those diagnostics on its Web site so that, instead of having to use a search engine to find the solution to a problem, customers can use Web-based diagnostics to help narrow the list of possibilities and offer solutions.
Microsoft also is working with computer and peripheral manufacturers like Dell, and hopes to work with software vendors, to create Fix Its that deal with third-party products.
Although it has lofty ambitions, the more immediate problem Fix It aims to solve is a hard-to-use Knowledge Base portal. The content there is often technical or overwhelming to consumers who experience computer woes, according to Microsoft. "Our research was showing consumers would have a problem, go to an article, and instantly navigate away from it out of fear," Brownell said. "When we know enough that we can document how and why someone is having a problem and how to solve it, why can't we put this into a script and make the fix downloadable?"
There are only about 100 Knowledge Base articles with Fix It capability today, but Microsoft hopes to ramp that up quickly now that the company has parsed every Knowledge Base article to see if it could be scripted, built another tool that automatically writes the scripts, and started developing processes to quickly test Fix It scripts themselves. Microsoft has found that roughly 56,000 existing Knowledge Base articles (20% out of about 280,000 total) could be scripted, though some of those refer to older, no-longer-supported software.