But now Google has something even better: Live, one-on-one advice, teaching and coaching. Google is part of a larger trend of offering such expert help primarily through mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.
This trend is an unalloyed good. It's good for people who want help. And it's even better for the economy. Here's what's the expert help trend is all about, and why it's so great for everybody.
Google launched this week a new service called Helpouts, which connect experts to people who need their help and advice. That connection takes place via a live, one-on-one video chat on Google+'s video Hangouts platform.
Sessions cost anywhere from free to $150. Helpers can charge by the minute or a flat fee. Payments are handled through Google Wallet. Google keeps 20% of the fee and the helper keeps 80%.
Both the helper and the helpee must have Google+ accounts, and the sessions take place either on the web from a PC or a Mac, or via an Android app. The service is available only in majority English-speaking countries: the U.S., Canada, the UK and Ireland, New Zealand and Australia. Google plans to offer Helpouts worldwide in the future.
Subject include language tutoring, cooking lessons and yoga.
Helpers are screened by Google in advance, and so far 1,000 experts have been approved, all of whom were invited to participate in the initial launch by Google. Customers rate and review helpers, so people looking for advice can be reasonably sure of the quality of help.
Google is also reportedly working on an API of unannounced functionality for Helpouts.
Amazon Kindle Mayday
Online retailer Amazon created an utterly unique one-on-one help system for its Kindle Fire HDX tablets announced recently. The tablets' custom interface has a " Mayday" button. When you press it, a video connection is established with a tech support person. You can see them, but they can't see you.
They can, however, hear you, see your screen and take limited control of your tablet. They can also circle things on your screen to highlight their instructions.
What's interesting about the Mayday service is that it's the most unique feature of Kindle's tablets. They're giving you something no other tablet maker is giving you: A human to help you.
Google's new Helpouts service lets you connect to the expert of your choice.
Many of the better fitness apps are setting themselves apart by offering one-on-one and group help, advice and coaching. Apps like Lift, Weilos, Retrofit, Sessions and Rise are strongly focused on connecting novices to experts for one-on-one help.
Why a real expert is 'the killer app'
The future was supposed to be automated and computerized. But it turns out that automation is creating demand for the human element.
A typical tech support scenario goes like this. You go to a company's web site, click on a "Support" link, which takes you to some kind of "knowledge base" where you're supposed to find your own answer. Alternatively, you're foisted off on some message board filled with non-experts who don't really know what they're talking about and are under no obligation to help you, personally.
Eventually, you find a number and, after slogging through a painful automated voice response gauntlet, end up on hold for 20 minutes. Once you get a live human, they tell you you've called the wrong department. When they transfer you, the call hangs up.
Everybody has experienced this general set of computer-augmented help systems, and we're left unsatisfied.
Very often, we just want to connect instantly to another human being who knows what she's talking about.
That demand, I believe, is driving the trend of personal, one-on-one expert help systems as exemplified by Google's Helpouts, Amazon's Mayday service and the new fitness coaching apps.
The real cultural shift: Self employment
What's really great about the expert help movement is what it does for the economy. Right now, there is an unknown number of people with enormous amounts to offer to the world, but no way to offer it. Retired people who spent a lifetime accumulating knowledge, for example, are living without income right now, just as people are out there wishing they could learn from somebody who knows.
People without good healthcare insurance and who can't get to a doctor can get medical advice inexpensively.
Others who want to start a small business -- say, a consulting company -- can start with Helpouts, then grow their clientele into a full-fledged consultancy.
These new services connect the demand for help with the supply. Because it's all online, each party can live anywhere. People in small towns can both get expert help and give it.
It's great for the digital nomad movement, too. It enables people to travel the world and live their dream while making a living all the while.
I don't know about you, but I'm really loving this new trend.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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This story, "The new killer app is a real human" was originally published by Computerworld.