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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Orchard Remote: A new kind of tech support

A writer friend of mine used Software Update to install the latest version of QuickTime on his ancient iBook and got a strange and worrisome message that not all files could be installed. And that was just the beginning. Not only did he not get the new version of QuickTime, he now had a computer that, no matter what app he tried working in, interrupted what he was doing by bringing the Finder to the foreground. He tried describing this to me by email and over the phone. He tried rebooting. We tried rebuilding the desktop. I tried explaining how to use Activity Monitor to see what was going on. He found Activity Monitor, but couldn't get it to work. This went on over a period of a few hours. My last message to him was, I'm afraid, along the lines of, "Er, good luck."

If you've spent a of couple hours on either end of a discussion like this recently, you need to know about Orchard Remote.

What's Orchard Remote? Imagine that the tech support person at the other end of the phone line could actually see the problem you're trying to calm down enough to describe. Then imagine you could just turn over control of the machine to him/her and sit back and watch while they diagnosed and fixed it.

With Orchard Remote, you can.

"He's was right there on my computer and could literally move the cursor!" is the way Kim Bamberg describes it.

No, she's is not hallucinating. Kim, a Seattle wedding planner, is sold on Orchard Remote. (And so's her husband, Adam Bamberg, a wedding photographer who no longer has to double as in-house tech support.)

Created by Jeff Hopkins, a former Apple Store "genius," Orchard Remote provides remote tech support service via the internet, logging into and literally taking control of a client's ailing computer while the client watches. Usually the Orchard Remote tech support person talks with the client by telephone or VOIP while the repairs are underway onscreen.

Jon Troxel, who runs a nautical charts company from a remote island in Puget Sound, is one of Orchard Remote's larger clients. Instead of relying on phone-based tech support for the wide variety of hardware and software he employs, Jon uses Orchard Remote to troubleshoot everything from his website to his networking. Stuck while trying to modify a PDF, he simply logged into the Orchard Remote website and filled out a request for help. "Within minutes Jeff was on the phone and showing me how to make an adjustments in Preferences," Jon said.

Based in Seattle, Orchard Remote serves clients just about anywhere—as long as they are connected to the internet. The support person accesses the client's machine using Virtual Network Computing (VNC) software similar to that in Apple's iChat application; it works on Macs running the most recent versions of Mac OS X (Leopard or Tiger).

"As long as you can get to our website, you can give us remote control of your machine," Jeff said. He works with clients who use cable or DSL, and even has one customer on dial-up.

Service is available seven days a week, 12 hours a day. (Or more. I was amused to note that every time I emailed a question for this article, I got back a reply in just a few minutes.)

What problems bring people to Orchard Remote? Not surprisingly, many of the same ones that have friends who use Macs phoning me at odd hours! Glitches with email and calendars are right at the top of the list. But Jeff is game to assist with things as exotic as performance issues in Adobe Lightroom.

"Even if it's software I don't use, I know how to research it," he said.

Orchard Remote clients run the gamut from Mac-savvy business owners who don't have time to deal with technical glitches to non-technical types who get queasy just hearing words like "reboot" "system preferences" and "software upgrade."

Orchard Remote currently offers unlimited support for six months for $99. The fee covers one household computer or one user with a couple of computers. Businesses, with more users and more complex systems, will pay higher rates. (Full disclosure: I have an account with Orchard Remote, and Jeff is a client for my writing services.)

I asked Jeff if he has any advice for clients, thinking he might recommend that we read a particular Mac book, or suggest that we get in the habit of consulting our applications' Help files. But his suggestion was far more basic and practical:

"Get as much RAM in your computer as you can afford," he said. "It makes your computer so much more responsive across the board."

During the two days I spent researching this post about Orchard Remote, I received calls and emails from no fewer than three friends in need of Mac technical support. (Now if only Orchard Remote offered a "friends and family" plan, like the cell phone carriers...)

What happened to my writer friend? He eventually got his ancient iBook under control by downloading the QuickTime update and installing it manually instead of using Software Update. The first install failed, but the second one took, and he was able to get the machine to stop summoning the Finder every few seconds. Time elapsed? Several hours. Fortunately he wasn't on deadline.

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