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UK-based support centre for Tesco software

Email only system - but will it appeal?

Supermarket chain Tesco will offer customers UK-based support via email for the six software applications it plans to launch under its own brand later this month.

White label software distributor Formjet will supply and support the software, through its subsidiary Formjet Innovations. Formjet holds the UK rights to distribute Panda's antivirus tools and Ability's word processor and office applications, among others. It founded the Innovations subsidiary to sell versions of the software under other companies' brands.

Formjet has software partners in 16 countries, and is looking for other sales outlets, company spokesman Graham O'Reilly said. "At the moment we're concentrating on the UK, and we are talking to other retail partners," he said.

For Tesco, Formjet has branded the software's packaging, code and online help with the supermarket chain's name, O'Reilly said.

In a market where technical support is increasingly outsourced to offshore destinations with lower labour costs, Formjet has set up its support team in Crawley.

"It's become quite a feature, these days, to say it's UK-based support," O'Reilly said.

The company keeps support costs down by handling everything by email. Customers "get an automated reply with the top 10 answers based on the subject line of their email," according to O'Reilly. Typically, that's enough to deal with around half the questions the company receives. Staff deal with the other half, he said.

The antivirus and security software packs will include one year's email support and software updates, he said. After that, customers can renew their subscription online or buy another pack at the supermarket. Formjet will impose no time limit on email support for the other applications.

Even at such a low price, it's doubtful that Tesco will gain much market share, one analyst said, pointing to Microsoft's continued dominance of the office software market, despite the availability of competing applications for much lower prices, or even for free.

"Many low-cost or free packages exist in each category, yet products that are many times the price of the cheapest option continue to dominate," David Mitchell of Ovum said.

If it is to win customers, Tesco must make sure its applications can read and write files compatible with Microsoft's Office suite, he said.

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