Dell has been on top of the computer retailing world for years. It has had a well-deserved reputation for providing better support than the other PC manufacturers.

There are signs that Dell’s crown may be slipping – although unfortunately there is no one else stepping up to do a better job.

My understanding is that Dell’s “Home Systems” and “Small Business” divisions are quite separate. The computers are identical or close to it, but pricing and configurations may be different. Support for purchases from the home division has been outsourced to India; support for the small business division was brought back to the United States. I always suggest buying from the Small Business side, even for a home computer.

If you need to buy replacement parts for a computer, the calls are sent to India. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and it will only become more common, but it increases the likelihood that the conversation will be difficult and that errors will be made.

I know of two encounters with Dell sales recently that went horribly sideways – simple purchases that turned into extended exercises in lost shipments, misidentified part numbers, multiple credit card charges, and endless delays.

Tech support continues to be strong most of the time – but one well-publicized horror story recently caused a lot of people to nod their heads in shared sympathy.

A few days ago, Dell closed the user forums run on its web site, offering only lame excuses. Like any forum, the comments on the site were not always flattering – but the forums were frequently a place to get quick answers to support questions that would be tedious to discover in a phone conversation.

Keep an eye out. Dell is still a leader and I still have faith in them, but this is how Gateway began its slide into irrelevance.