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Fog Creek Copilot - The Pandora's Box of Family IT

I occasionally read Joel Spolsky's blog - Joel on Software.  Several of the posts over the summer described a project his interns were working on called Copilot.  Copilot is a hacked up version of VNC that uses a central server to facilitate a connection between two machines that may be behind firewalls.  It is supposed to allow you to either request help from someone or offer to help someone by directly logging into their machine.  Fog Creek charges $10 for 24 hours of connection time.  Sounded interesting.  So when my mom called me at 9:30pm this evening (as I was getting ready for bed) with a question about why she wasn't able to open attachments in her email anymore I figured it would be worth a try.

The conversation started like this -

Mom: I can't open attachments in email.
Me: I have no idea what the problem is.
Mom: But I can't open attachments in my email.
Me: [email protected]#[email protected] (quietly) - Hey mom, I know about a cool program that will let me log into your computer and fix your email (followed by a technical explanation of how it worked).
Mom: (completely ignoring my explanation) Can you fix my email?
Me: Yes. But it will cost you $10.
Mom: What?!?! You want ME to pay $10?  I'm your mother!
Me: It could be worse... I could charge you my full hourly rate...
Mom: !#[email protected] (in a motherly sort of way)
Me: !#@$! (a bit less quietly this time) OK, I'll pay the first time... but next time it's your $10!

And so it goes, down the slippery slope.  Now that my mom knows I've got the technical means to help her if only I would fork over $10 there's no telling what lies ahead! 

So how did it work, you ask?  Decently well.  If you've used VNC before you'll understand the general idea.  I was able to quickly fix her email problem (she still had Earthlink installed but had canceled the service and was using her cable modem account from Charter instead).  I also noticed she was using Norton Anti-virus 2003.  So we uninstalled Earthlink and rebooted the computer.  When it rebooted my mom had to log into the Copilot web page again.

Me: Yes mom, type in the address in the "Address" box at the top of the web browser...
Mom: What's a web browser?
Me: <sigh> ...

The web site remembered we'd set everything up before so my mom just had to say she wanted to continue having me help her.  Once she downloaded a small (500KB) application everything reconnected smoothly.  Each time we had to reboot there was the small issue of getting reconnected again, but if my mom could do it, so could yours! 

After the reboot we figured out that Charter has its own anti-virus and firewall software which we finally got installed (had to figure out what my mom's account number was to register for the software).  A few more installs later her computer is safe to be on the Internet, and she now knows how to use Yahoo! Music:

Mom: What does it mean when it says "My Station"?
Me: It means you rate the music you like and you can listen to it over the Internet...
Mom: Do I have to pay?
Me: No, unless you don't want to hear the commercials or you want a higher quality audio stream.
Mom: So I do have to pay?
Me: (well, you get the idea).

Now it's almost midnight.  So I'd like to dedicate my drowsiness all day tomorrow to Joel Spolsky and his group of rascally interns.  May you forever be besieged by tech support calls from your family and friends, AND have to pay for the calls yourselves!

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