Many readers have asked me for help in solving beta program problems. If you participate in a Microsoft public beta program, remember that no formal support is available for the masses (unless your company is participating in a large corporate beta site program, which might be a different story). However, you can find support from Microsoft's news servers for almost all the Microsoft beta programs as well as support for shipping Microsoft applications.

To access the news server, you need only a newsreader client (Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express are fine) and an Internet connection. Configure the client to point to either news.microsoft.com or msnews.microsoft.com. You won't need a password, but you'll need to configure your system with an email address to post to the newsgroups.

When I checked for support for the Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 beta, for example, I found the newsgroup microsoft.public.windowsmedia.beta, which contained more than 6000 posts covering a wide variety of beta bug problems, many of which readers had told me they had discovered. The newsgroups on the Microsoft servers are frequented by Microsoft employees who collect information about problems and answer questions when they can. Some of the best information you'll find in any of these newsgroups won't be from Microsoft staff but from other product users who want to share their expertise.

I've received responses to some fairly obscure technical questions in just minutes in developer-focused newsgroups, and I receive answers to most questions within a day or two after posting. There's no guarantee that you'll find a solution to your particular problem in these newsgroups, but there's a very good chance you will. In more than 20 years of working with computers, I can count on my fingers the number of problems I've encountered in corporate business environments that were truly unique. And finding someone else who has dealt with similar problems can be a significant time-saver. Microsoft has about 300 newsgroups on its news servers, and many newsgroups are localized for international users—a plethora of information for anyone who cares to look for it.

After you've mastered the Microsoft newsgroups, take a look at the general Usenet (the worldwide network of news servers). For example, the commercial news reader feed I subscribe to carries more than 80 newsgroups dedicated strictly to computer networking, one of my areas of specialization. I subscribe to about a dozen of these newsgroups and scan their contents at least once a week, looking for interesting and informative content.

Commercial news servers (such as Airnews, http://www.airnews.net ) can carry more than 30,000 newsgroups, with multiple terabytes of data available (which is the reason these organizations charge for their services). Most ISPs offer a smaller subset of the available newsgroups to their subscribers at no extra charge, so you have plenty of options for investigating the world of Usenet for both business and personal data needs. Keep in mind that large commercial news server companies retain the data on their servers for longer periods of time than your local ISP is likely to; you'll often find active groups with 70,000 to 80,000 messages available on popular topics.