Technical support for many often has communication barriers. Sometimes, you’ll be emailing a client telling them how to do something and they’ll do something completely different – or you’ll be talking to them over the phone and they will misinterpret your directions.
In many cases, unfortunately, its often quicker to perform the task yourself, than wait for a non techie user to figure out what you need then to do. In previous roles that I’ve had as a software developer, these sorts of problems crop up frequently with perhaps missing driver software, or misconfigured firewalls preventing your software from behaving. If you have any I.T knowledge at all, you’ll have experience the joy and wonder of being called out to a machine only to find they’ve been using the CD drive as a cup holder, or that they’ve been clicking on the completely wrong icon.
One of the easiest ways I’ve found to solve this is to sort out some kind of remote control software for the machine in question – especially if this is a recurring event that needs sorted out time and time again. It certainly saves the wasted journey out of the office. Thankfully there are lots of free and commercial remote control options out there for taking back control.
Pricing: Free for Non Commercial use.
Platform:Windows / Mac
Install as a service? No
Out of all the options that Ive used before, Teamviewer is definitely one of the easiest to get up and going. Instead of using the traditional rigmarole of finding an IP address on the host, and giving it to the client, Teamviewer uses its own “code” to transfer between the requesting machine, and the machine making the request. Nice to see such a simplistic approach considering the use of such software is normally the result of the technically challenged amongst us having problems.
It is free for non commercial use, and also includes an iPhone application that allows mobile remote control. Its also The free version also only allows 1:1 concurrent connections, so only one user can connect to another at a time. For many this won’t be a big problem, especially when used in the context of fixing Auntie’s laptop. Installing on commercial server platforms such as Windows server require you to pay for use, with licensing starting at a very reasonable £440 once of fee for lifetime use.
Pricing: Free under GNU General public License
Install as a service? Yes
During installation, UltraVNC gives a couple of options. You can choose to install viewer, server, server (silent) or both. This allows you to distribute the same executable to your clients, but it does mean you’ll have to specify what they install. (in most cases, the silent server only). For Vista, another couple of downloaded files were needed to get up running during installation, but they were relatively small. Apart from that small blip, the installation process was quick and painless.
Unlike Teamviewer, there are a whole host of options for UltraVNC. This is both a blessing, and a curse as the initial server setup presents the user with a multitude of options, and requires you to set an initial password to share with the remote viewer, as an authentication method. Failing to do so, will reject incoming connections for security reasons. To connect the client to the server you’ll also need to know the IP address of the remote machine – easily found by telling your client to visit whatsmyip. Disappointingly, the software for the server doesn’t expose this easily.
You can also choose to speed up the connection between the machines by turning off wallpaper on the desktop – and useful things such as disabling the viewers mouse and keyboard interaction. A further interesting feature within UltraVNC is their Javaviewer – which allows you to connect to a server through a web browser.
Pricing: Freemium Model – Free version here.
Platform: Windows / Linux / Mac
Install as a service? Yes
As with most fremium business models, the alternatives to the free add additional features. Out of the box RealVNC comes in three different flavours.
The Free Edition – Runs on various flavors of Unix (Linux, Solaris, HP-UX, AIX) and most versions of Windows. Some Linux distro’s unfortunately, may have to download and patch the packages on the RealVNC site themselves – although almost all Linux distributions include an updated/customised version of the RealVNC free edition already. You’ll find them under the packages vnc4server and xvnc4viewer in most.
Personal Edition – commercial version geared towards home or small-business users, with authentication and encryption; only runs on Windows.
Enterprise Edition – commercial version geared towards large enterprises, with enhanced authentication and encryption; runs on Windows, Mac OS X and various flavours of Linux and UNIX.
Platform: PC / Mac
Install as a service? Yes
Logmein is one of the only browser based services on the market. After installation of a browser plug-in andit then opens an emulator of the remote PC in a new window. Installation on a client machine is a matter of ease, and the download (15.8MB) runs via Microsoft’s clickonce deployment – meaning its virtually unattended after a few confirmations from the user. The download for the software is available after you’ve setup an account on the logmein website, and once you are up and running, you are presented with a list of machines to connect to.
As far as the client machines go, once they’ve installed the software, it appears as a tray icon allowing a number of operations – including sending a request to connect via email. For the authentication, the Windows passwords and usernames are used to access the machine, meaning the server user doesn’t have to remember any other passwords.
The user experience is surprisingly good – especially considering the software is running directly in the browser, most modern machines won’t notice any difference between traditional VNC client / server connects.
Pricing: Free (released under GPL)
Platform: Windows / Linux
Install as a service? Yes
TightVNC is available under the open source GPL license, and provides the backbone for a number of other remote admin software including CrossLoop. It is based around the idea of “tight encoding”, which is effectively lossy JPEG compression combined with a custom algorithm. The smaller the data size, the better the performance of such software as less data has to be sent over the wire.
Although Windows is the only officially suported platform for a server, it is possible to use a Mac machine as a viewer, using the Java viewer interface of Tightvnc.
TightVNC is an enhanced version of VNC which includes a lot of new features, improvements and optimizations over the original version of VNC. Although it’s very easy to use, stable and under an active development, it still maintains the quality of being a free software package, available for both Linux and Windows.
Install as a service?
One of the few mac only VNC clients on the market – Jolly’s FastVNC started out life as an alternative to slower clients such as the much vilified Apple VNC server. A widely respected piece of software, it has received acclaim from around the web, highlighting its speed and stability.
This collection of links brings together a collection of remote control software from around the web (both free and commercial) that allow some kind of desktop administration of client machines. The table shows which platforms are supported on each.
|Linux||Mac OS X||Microsoft Windows||Windows Mobile client||iPhone/iPod client|
|Apple Remote Desktop||X||✓||X||X||?|
|Apple Screen Sharing (iChat)||X||✓||X||X||?|
|Chicken of the VNC (open source)||X||✓||X||X||?|
|Crossloop (free client)||X||✓||✓||X||X|
|DameWare Mini Remote Control||X||X||✓||X||?|
|EchoVNC (open source)||✓||X||✓||X||?|
|Fog Creek Copilot||X||✓||✓||X||?|
|FreeNX (open source)||✓||✓||✓||X||?|
|HOB HOBLink JWT||✓||✓||✓||X||?|
|iTALC (open source)||✓||X||✓||X||?|
|Remote Graphics Software||✓||X||✓||✓||?|
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