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Remote Control Software Solves "Friends and Family" Support Issues

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In this lively autobiographical article, Ed Tittel describes his long-distance quest to help his father diagnose and fix computer issues.
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I'm in an interesting family situation that I have to believe reflects a common set of circumstances for computer-savvy boomers, and lots of younger folks as well.

Let me explain: My dad is 88, in excellent health, and a reluctant but daily computer user. His uses for the computer are pretty limited, but increasingly important to him. As his physical mobility is beginning to wane, he is finding his computer a valuable communication tool and lifeline to stay in touch with family and friends, to pay bills, manage his finances, and so forth.

Over the past 10 years, I've helped Dad purchase and maintain a Dell desktop that we recently replaced with a still-capable and quite affordable Dell Inspiron D630 notebook PC (with T7250 dual-core CPU, 4 GB DDR2 RAM, and a reasonably snappy Seagate 500 GB Momentus XT hard disk). He's running Windows 7, and I do what I can to keep his machine secure, patched, and up to date.

But because I bought Dad those PCs, and because he isn't really interested in learning the details involved in doing his own maintenance, upkeep, and troubleshooting, when something goes wrong on his PC, I get a phone call.

I'm expected to diagnose and fix his issues, whatever they may be, although he's in northern Virginia just outside our nation's capital, and I'm in Central Texas, just outside the Austin City Limits. Sometimes, this can be challenging, at other times merely vexing.

Case in Point: My Browser's Broken!

The issues I've helped Dad address in the last six months have included recovering from automatic restart after Windows Update forces a reboot, identifying the power cord that plugs into his laptop's AC/DC converter (to recharge the battery and provide external power), and recovering from several inadvertent and unwanted toolbar installs that have reset his home page and default search engine selections. (He relies on a default home page I hand-built for him that includes links to his brokerage and bank accounts, online stock tracking, bill-pay sites, and so forth; when that page disappears, so does his one-click access to his digital stomping grounds.)

But to give you an idea of how weird things can get, my favorite recent encounter had to do with something that turned out to be both completely benign and astoundingly frustrating for both us because he lacks a frame of reference for communicating about what his computer is doing, or for me to tell him what to look for and what to do on his machine. This is the event that drove me to establish remote control over his PC and propelled me to identify what kind of software works best to let me show him what to do, as well as to jump onto his PC from across the Internet when I must, to take control and make things right.

Somehow, Dad managed to get IE into full screen mode (there are lots of ways to do this, but the easiest one to describe is to click View and then select Full Screen; the F11 key also usually acts as a toggle to turn full screen viewing on and off). He told me his browser was "broken," and without access to the usual menu controls (or understanding that Alt-Tab would switch him to the desktop or other open applications) he got completely stuck inside the browser with no idea of how to escape.

It took me about an hour to get enough information out of him to finally diagnose the problem and about 30 seconds to fix it on his machine. Interestingly, on my own desktop the F11 key doesn't work as advertised. Once I get into Full Screen mode, I actually have to position the cursor at the top of the screen to show my browser tabs, right-click, and select Restore from the pop-up menu to turn off the view.

But it was this misadventure that forced me to learn how to take over his desktop so I could drive his machine, rather than painstakingly describing desktop maneuvers in language he could understand and implement himself.

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