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How much support should come free with the purchase of a tech product? And when does it become something people should pay for?

The issue isn’t clear-cut, which makes the debut of Microsoft’s new “Answer Desk” online service an interesting experiment, at least. Rolled out quietly by the Redmond company last week, it’s an online adaptation of the Answer Desks in Microsoft’s retail stores (similar to Apple’s Genius Bars), designed for mainstream computer users.

After an initial free online chat with one of the company’s “Answer Techs,” customers can get software support ($99 for about 60 minutes), personal one-on-one training ($49 for an hour-long session) virus removal and protection ($99 for a two-hour session) PC performance (also $99 for about two hours).

“Answer Desk Answer Techs are highly trained, and qualified in their domain of knowledge, including popular software such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint,” the site promises. “In addition, they are professional, friendly, and dedicated to solving your PC issues without resorting to technology jargon.”

It’s a 24/7 service, timed to coincide with post-holiday questions about new PCs and software under the tree. In many cases, Answer Techs will use remote access technology to control the customer’s computer and solve problems as they watch.

Peter Bright of Ars Technica calls the launch of the service surprising considering the basic support that comes with Microsoft software, and the fact that most copies of Windows are sold pre-installed on PCs, with the PC makers providing support in those cases, at least in theory.

Domain-tracking site was first to spot the Answer Desk site.

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