When my mother-in-law recently bought her first computer at age 65, I kicked myself for not including tech-support hours in my wedding vows. But after a few 30-minute phone calls, I realized that Joann was smarter than I'd expected. Her computer, however, was a lot dumber. Confusing menu options, modal windows, buttons and bars with trick functions— of course she couldn't figure it out by herself.
As anyone who has attempted intergenerational tech support knows, the biggest barrier is the older party's inability to explain what's happening on her desktop. "Where's my fish?" my mother-in-law would ask in her Dutch-accented English. "I can't find the little fish. So now I go into de Volkskrant and … why is this wheel here?" If I could see her screen, I realized, I'd know what she was talking about. I could find the fish.
Luckily there's an easy solution. After a few months of hands-on testing, I've determined that the key to parental tech support is remote-desktop software—either Microsoft's Remote Desktop or the open-source VNC, both of which are free. Remote-desktop software shows Mom's computer screen inside a window on your desktop. You can sit back and watch her work while you guide her over the phone. Or, if you can't stand to watch her fumble around, you can wrest control of her mouse and keyboard to fix things yourself.
To get started, double-check exactly what operating system is on your supportee's computer. They'll need to run the server end of a remote-desktop connection, while you run the client end. If Mom has Windows XP Professional, you're in luck. You can use Microsoft's Remote Desktop server, which is built in to XP Professional. Just follow Microsoft's instructions. If you don't have XP Professional on your own computer, you can simply install Microsoft's free Remote Desktop client for Windows or for Mac.
It's more likely that Mom and Dad are running Windows XP Home Edition, Windows ME, or Windows 98. In that case, you'll have to use VNC (short for Virtual Network Computing). Install the free VNC Server on her computer. I suggest running it in Service Mode, so Mom won't have to find the program and turn it on every time she needs your help. If they've got a Mac, don't install anything—just enable VNC from the Preferences panel. Then, install a VNC client program on your own computer—VNC Viewer for Windows or Chicken of the VNC for Mac. If Mom lives nearby and you've got a laptop, you should set up the connection on-site rather than doing it remotely—there will be some inevitable tinkering at both ends, so bookmark these troubleshooting pages for VNC or Remote Desktop. It took me most of an hour to do the installations and find the right combination of settings, but when Joann's desktop finally appeared on my laptop, I was ecstatic. Look, the fish! "You call it a cursor," she sniffed.
At first, watching her work her computer in silence from 30 miles away was creepy. I realized I could snoop on her anytime I wanted to, except that would be really boring. Connecting to Joann's screen while I have her on the phone, though, feels completely natural. My remote screen sometimes lags a few seconds behind her mouse, but the head-on, unobstructed view of her desktop is unbeatable. Sitting back in my office chair, with her voice piped into my headset, I'm a lot more relaxed, patient, and in sync with her than I would be crammed side-by-side on her sewing bench.
Joann likes the setup, too. Instead of fidgeting at her side, I can hover behind her ear and play guardian angel. I can reach out and demonstrate a menu trick, or correct "gregslist" to "craigslist" without getting in her space. The remote desktop seems designed for parent-child collaboration—it lets both family members think they're in control.
There are a few tech pitfalls to watch for. If you can't connect, it may be that Mom's home setup includes a firewall blocking the port for Remote Desktop (port 3389) or VNC (port 5900). I got around this by logging in to Joann's SBC/Yahoo wireless router and reconfiguring its firewall by selecting "VNC" and "Joann's Computer." The router's menus displayed a public IP address for her computer, a number different from the one on her desktop. I have to use the public IP to connect to her computer from outside her home network.
If you have any doubts about what IP address to use—or if something else just isn't working—then it's time for you to call tech support. Ask your parents' ISP how to connect to her computer remotely via VNC. The support reps I talked to were glad to help—every call she makes to me is one less call to them. You also might be hesitant to give this a try because you're worried that black-hat hackers will spy on your mom and dad. I worry about VNC-hacking criminals about as much as I worry about killer space robots, but you can connect through a secure tunnel if you're that paranoid.
Since I set up Joann's remote desktop, our help sessions have morphed from exasperating calls into pleasant chats. Instead of wincing when I see her caller ID, I sometimes phone her to ask if things are working OK. As I helped her open a recent set of photos from her sister in the Netherlands, she told me stories about the relatives and friends whose pictures scrolled across my screen, and then segued into a story about my wife that I'd never heard before. I felt like a jerk for presuming her computer would become a family wedge issue. Instead, it's brought us closer together.