Sometimes I have to do remote computer support for friends and family members. In days of yore, this meant smashing the phone handset between my ear and shoulder while typing, and frequently asking the person on the other end of the phone questions like “well, what buttons do you see?” and “are you sure there isn’t a menu option that says X?”
Since about 2005, I’ve been using Fog Creek’s Copilot service instead. Copilot is simple, cheap, and fast; you go to the website, put in your name, and get a 12-digit code. You (as what Copilot calls the helper) either read that code to the person being helped or have the web site e-mail it to them. They put the code in too; both you and the other person download a small executable, which is prestamped with the code. When both ends have the executable running, you get a screen-sharing session with the remote machine.
Copilot essentially uses the VNC protocol to transfer screen images and mouse movements, which are all “reflected” off a Fog Creek server (details here). This approach works well through firewalls and proxies, and its performance is decent over low-bandwidth connections. The client has the ability to reconnect after temporary interruptions in network service, which is handy.
Pricing is reasonable: $5 for a 24-hour “day pass”, with free usage on the weekends. There are other pricing options too, but I don’t use the service often enough to need any of them. Fog Creek positions Copilot as a useful tool for corporate help desks, which is probably true.
One interesting thing to know about Copilot: when you purchase a day pass, it’s good for 24 hours. However, by default the helper can only use the day pass from the original computer. Suppose I start a session as a helper using my Mac at home, then I want to use the same session the next day (within the 24-hour window) from a different computer. Because the executable you run on the helper’s computer has a unique key, you can’t just start a new session, and there’s no place for the helper to put in an invitation code. The Copilot FAQ says to follow the instructions to reconnect, but there aren’t any! After a few fruitless minutes of poking around, I called their toll-free support number and within two minutes had the answer: if you start helping someone on computer A and then move to computer B, Fog Creek tech support has to send you an e-mail containing a link to the correctly-stamped version of the executable. They did, and I was able to use it without problems.
So, the next time someone asks you to help fix their computer (and you’re actually willing to do it– not always a given), give Copilot a try. I’m a fan.