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Patients Are a Virtue with HouseCall

How many times have you helped a friend or relative with a Macintosh problem over the phone, knowing you could fix the trouble in a fraction of the time if you could just get your hands on their machine? Although the trouble might be trivial, guiding someone verbally through a visual interface can be quite an exercise in patience – especially if they’re beginning users who don’t yet have a solid grasp of the terminology that describes what they’re seeing. You have to build a mental picture of their screen based on their descriptions, while also giving instructions in terms they can easily understand.

Now, you can get your hands on their machine, no matter where you happen to be. Netopia’s Timbuktu HouseCall includes the access and control features of its more powerful sibling Timbuktu Pro in a package geared for simplified one-to-one access. HouseCall enables you to view or control another Macintosh, exchange files, type messages in a chat window, and even use an intercom feature to speak to the other person using microphones attached to both Macs. HouseCall can connect two computers over the Internet or via direct modem-to-modem connection.


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HouseCall has two components: the HouseCall Patient control panel that the other user installs on the ailing Mac (which must, of course, be able to boot and use its modem or Internet connection), and the HouseCall Doctor application that you, as the on-call Mac expert, use to interact with the other machine.

The Internet as Waiting Room — The easiest method of connecting a doctor to a patient is via the Internet. Enter the IP address of the remote machine in the HouseCall Doctor application. When the patient enables Internet access to the HouseCall Patient, you can connect.

Not everybody has a fixed IP address, so patients using a dial-up Internet connection (who typically receive a different IP address each time they connect) can enter their email address. With Internet access enabled in HouseCall Patient, the current IP address is displayed and stored temporarily with the email address on Netopia’s public Internet Locator Server. The doctor needs only to enter the patient’s email address to prompt HouseCall Doctor to look up the currently assigned IP number. Users sensitive to broadcasting their email address can use any unique address; according to Netopia, this information is used only for establishing HouseCall connections.

Nursing Modem-to-Modem Access — HouseCall doesn’t require an Internet connection, as long as both machines have modems and access to a telephone line. By default, HouseCall tries to operate via a direct modem-to-modem connection, an option that represents some of the software’s strongest and yet most frustrating aspects. On one hand, you can both talk and transfer data using the same single-line phone connection, which can be handy if you need to pause your diagnostic work and speak to the other person without breaking the connection and calling back. However, establishing a modem-to-modem connection in the first place can be frustrating.

My biggest gripe with HouseCall is that you must use your voice line as the data line. When a client of mine was having a problem that we couldn’t diagnose over the phone, I turned to HouseCall instead of making an unscheduled 30 minute drive to his office. Although we both have two phone lines, I had to plug my voice phone line into my PowerBook, then initiate the call using my phone; similarly, he had to juggle phone cords and handsets on his end. With both of us on the phone, we each clicked HouseCall’s Activate Modem button, and after enduring modem connection tones, were instructed by HouseCall to hang up the receivers. Once the data connection is established, you can click HouseCall’s Talk on Phone button to go back to voice communication.

Netopia deserves credit for making the process straightforward: each step is explained by a dialog box that must be dismissed before you can continue. However, many people requiring remote assistance won’t be technically inclined, and the succession of dialogs and commands could easily become confusing. Also, in this age when many people have phone lines dedicated to data access (especially true of folks acting as computer doctors) HouseCall should include the capability to enter the patient’s phone number and make the connection directly without requiring a doctor to call a patient using a handset.

The Ghost in the Machine — Once a connection is up and running, HouseCall is a joy to use. As doctor, you can click the Control button to display the contents of the remote Mac’s screen; now you can control the Mac as if it were sitting on your desk. My client expressed amazement as his PowerBook seemed to be pointing, clicking, and opening folders on its own. For my part, I was quickly able to delve into his System Folder to confirm my theory as to why his computer was misbehaving (an old version of the StuffIt Engine was preventing some email attachments from being decoded). Tasks that would have been difficult and time-consuming to explain verbally took only a few minutes to perform, I didn’t have to try to visualize what my client was doing, and my client could watch precisely what I did.

To my surprise, HouseCall was quite responsive, even over our 33.6 Kbps connection. If the connection had been slower, I could have switched the HouseCall display to black-and-white by clicking a B&W icon on the left edge of the window, which would improve performance by reducing the amount of display data being pushed to my machine.

While working, I was also able to ask my client questions using HouseCall’s Chat window (which is a fairly standard chat interface where you type back and forth with the other person) without switching back to the voice line. Communicating via the program’s Intercom feature was also an option, but since he was on a deadline we didn’t take the extra time just to experiment. I later tested the Intercom feature using a fast DSL connection with a colleague also using DSL; the feature is usable – especially if you have a microphone into which you can speak directly – but it tended to be a little sluggish and the sound quality could be choppy. Someone with more dedicated support needs could definitely benefit from using the intercom, though.

To fix my client’s problem, I deleted the outdated extension and copied over the most recent installer for StuffIt Expander by dragging it from my desktop and dropping it on his. An Exchange progress window appeared, followed by a pleasing tone to announce completion of the copy operation. (I’m always impressed when software incorporates good, unique sounds.) If I only needed to copy the files to him, I could have begun by creating a new exchange session without controlling his machine at all. In that case, an Exchange window appears containing only a directory list of both computers; simply select a file and click Copy. After installing the new version of StuffIt Expander, I was able to decode the files that he needed for his deadline. Declaring the patient cured, we disconnected, and I sent him a bill that likely totalled far less than a real doctor’s charge for the same amount of diagnostic time.

Control Issues — Timbuktu Pro can be configured to allow a system administrator to connect to a user’s machine semi-transparently; a flashing icon on the menu bar denotes that someone is connected, but as long as access has already been set up, the administrator can connect at any time. Since HouseCall is intended for occasional access, nearly every action requires confirmation by the patient, from establishing control to instigating a chat session, and the doctor must wait until the patient has given approval. This can be frustrating for the doctor, especially when copying multiple items: each exchange requires confirmation, and unfortunately my client once stepped out of his office for a minute while I waited for him to approve a file transfer. But such annoyances are minor compared to having to spend twice as much time on the phone or visit the recalcitrant computer.

HouseCall shares a few other options with Timbuktu Pro. You can copy the contents of the clipboard from one machine to the other, and there are settings at the left edge of the HouseCall window to control whether or not resizing the window resizes its contents or just changes the amount of visible screen space. You can also toggle between Control mode and Look mode, where your mouse and keyboard actions aren’t applied to the remote machine (in case you need to observe how a patient is performing a task, for example). HouseCall also includes a Modem Monitor window to view the state and duration of a modem-to-modem connection.

Expert Care without Paperwork! The HouseCall Doctor application is a free 1.1 MB download from Netopia’s Web site. The patient client, also a 1.1 MB download, costs $30 individually, $50 for two registration codes, or $200 for a ten-pack. Although several people I’ve spoken to are surprised the client has to pay for the software, having the patient pick up the tab is often a small price to pay in exchange for having troubles resolved by an experienced Mac expert. At typical consulting rates, HouseCall will likely pay for itself during the first session.

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HouseCall is a great easy-to-use solution for anyone who has ever tried to diagnose a Macintosh problem over the phone. Both components require a PowerPC-based Mac OS computer, 16 MB of RAM, modem or Internet access, and Mac OS 8.1 or later. A fully functional, three-day evaluation version of the HouseCall Patient is also available.

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