If your company is anything like mine, you probably have been in this situation (or something like it):
ME: Well, I just reset my active-directory login, but doing so caused my computer’s keychain of passwords to stop working, since it has a different password than what is now the new active-directory login.
TECH: Oh, that’s pretty easy to fix. Do I have permission to take over your computer for a minute?
At which point, my screen flashes, I click on “agree” when asked if I will share my computer, and the cursor begins to be controlled by a tech somewhere in North Carolina while I sit in Manhattan. I watch as she opens windows, scrolls through menus and types information into various fields and forms.
And everything is again right with my computer.
Let’s compare that with another tech-support phone call that many of us encounter:
MY MOTHER: Hi honey, it’s me. Something’s wrong with the computer.
ME: Oh? What’s the problem?
MOM: I used to have Safari in my dock of applications, and now it’s gone.
ME: O.K. Start by going to the Go menu and open your Applications window.
MOM: I don’t understand anything you just said.
ME: O.K. Um, do you see “Go” at the top of your screen?
MOM: I’m looking … Finder, File, Edit, View, Go!
ME: O.K., click on that.
MOM: I’ve clicked on it. What do I do next?
ME: Click on “Applications.”
MOM: Got it.
ME: Scroll down until you see Safari.
MOM: O.K. Scrolling…
I’ll spare you the rest. Suffice it to say, as a technology advice columnist, I get a lot of questions like this — and not just from my mother. You have the same problem, right?
I’ve found that it’s easier to take control of someone’s computer and fix problems myself than try to talk somebody through an elaborate solution. Not to mention that the person seeking help gets the added benefit of being able to see what I did on the computer. Having seen my handiwork, they may be able to repeat the same fix later, without needing to call me for help. (I can dream, can’t I?)
Fortunately, it is possible to do this remotely for the computers of loved ones and friends, in much the same way that your corporate I.T. department can. Generally categorized under the term “remote access,” these services let you view and control another person’s computer (or your own machine) from any computer with an Internet connection.
Before you worry that these services expose you to hackers, scammers and outright thieves, know that in order for any remote-access service to work, you have to take specific steps to enable a computer, and that access is controlled through a system of passwords. Using remote access is as much a security risk as logging in to your bank’s Web site, giving your credit card number to a phone operator at a catalog retailer, or walking outside with your wallet in your pocket.
If you use popular communications software like Skype or iChat, you already have some remote capabilities. Those applications have screen-sharing features, which allow you and another user to agree to see what is on your or their display.
That’s helpful, but it still requires a detailed phone conversation in which you direct your friend/family member/colleague around their desktop and hard drive as they retain control over the computer (“Just click once and wait for the label to be highlighted. No, you just clicked twice and opened the folder, go back…”)
What you really want is the ability to look at another person’s display and take control of their computer (is there a way to say this that doesn’t sound sinister?). There are several services that provide this feature, but the one I prefer is LogMeIn.
LogMeIn offers a range of products, but my favorite is LogMeIn Free. That’s because it’s free.
LogMeIn Free is designed and marketed as a way to set up your own computer for remote access, but it can easily be used to set up someone else’s instead. First you set up an account at logmein.com. Then you download a small piece of software onto the computer you wish to control and use that application to link that computer to your logmein.com account. You can add as many computers to your account as you wish.
Once you’ve linked a computer to your account, you’re able to view and control it from any Web browser after logging into your account and entering the password you assigned to it. This is another reason I prefer LogMeIn to some other services. It doesn’t require you to have any special software on your end — just a computer and an Internet connection. Or you can use an Apple smartphone or tablet and a free app; Android support is coming soon, the company says.
When you take over another computer, it will appear in a window on logmein.com. You have the option to view that window in full screen, effectively turning your keyboard and mouse or trackpad into the other computer’s. That’s not to say that, for example, my mother is locked out of using her machine when I access it; her computer will accept inputs from her or me, so we can switch off if need be. If we both try to do different things at the same time, the computer gets a little confused and the cursor doesn’t really move, so you have to work in turns.
LogMeIn Free allows the host computer to control some of the parameters of remote access. You can set it so whoever is requesting access has to get your consent before they can control your computer, or you can grant them automatic access. When your computer is being controlled remotely, LogMeIn will display a small window on your screen letting you know it’s been entered. A user can also turn LogMeIn off at any time, making remote access impossible. You also have the power to cancel a remote session if you’d like.
There is a little bit of lag time when you’re controlling someone else’s computer. Don’t expect the cursor to move perfectly smoothly, as it will jump and stutter a little bit. LogMeIn is great to change a setting or find a misplaced file, but the connection it uses isn’t very robust, so accessing Mom’s computer to, say, watch a video she has stored on it is not going to be a satisfying viewing experience.
There are some other limitations to LogMeIn Free. You can’t drag a file from your desktop and drop it into Mom’s; for that, you’d have to upgrade to LogMeIn Pro, which costs $70 annually. Copying and pasting text between machines is not always available, either.
But those are small quibbles, to be honest. What LogMeIn has done for me and my family is better than any therapist. Frustrating phone calls are a thing of the past. Inconvenient house calls are also in the rearview mirror. Now, when there’s a problem, I can quickly and easily get online, assess the situation and do my best to remedy it. Familial tranquillity has been restored.
Well, at least when it comes to the computer.