A few years ago, I had a job that required me to support offices all over the country. One day, a user called me with a fairly simple problem that I could have fixed myself in under five minutes. But since I couldn’t get my hands on the system, I had to spend the better part of the day trying to walk a particularly clueless user through the problem. I ultimately had to drive 650 miles to perform a five-minute repair.

Sound familiar?

We could have avoided all that travel expense and lost productivity—both mine and the user’s—with the new Windows XP Remote Assistance feature. In this article, I’ll introduce you to the Remote Assistance invitation process. Once you see how simple it is, you may never want to troubleshoot without it again.

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An end user SOS
When users require assistance, they must generate a remote assistance invitation and then send the invitation to someone who can help them, preferably the help desk. (To learn more about who can get invitations from end users and why this can be a concern, check out my previous article.) To do so, users select the Help And Support command from the Start menu. Next, they click on the Invite A Friend To Connect To Your Computer With Remote Assistance link.

At this point, users may either View Invitation Status or create a new request by clicking on the Invite Someone To Help You link.

Users will now see the main Help And Support Center screen, shown in Figure A. As you can see, the two primary methods of requesting remote assistance are via an instant message or e-mail. If users want to send an e-mail-based invitation, they simply enter the e-mail address of the person to whom they want to send the invitation and then click the Invite This Person link. The users’ Outlook or Outlook Express address book is also available through this screen.

To use Windows Messenger, users first must be logged on to a Windows Messenger service, which they can do directly from this dialog box by clicking the Sign In button under the Windows Messenger section, shown in Figure A. Once logged in to Windows Messenger, users click Tools | Ask for Remote Assistance and then choose the e-mail address of the contact they want to ask for help.

Figure A
Users may use the Help and Support screen to request remote assistance.

The other available option is to save the invitation as a file by selecting the corresponding link at the bottom of the Help And Support Center screen. Users are then presented with the Remote Assistance – Save Invitation wizard, where they must enter their name and chose an expiration time for the invitation. Setting an expiration time promotes security by ensuring that an open invitation isn’t hanging around indefinitely. The default expiration time is one hour. Finally, users have the option of associating a password with the invitation to prevent it from being used by anyone other than the intended recipient. If users attach a password, they must tell the recipient the password.

Once a password in entered, users can easily save the file to the desktop, My Document’s Folder, a network share, or any other location. By default, all Remote Assistance invitations are named RAInvitation.mscrincident. While the file name doesn’t affect the Remote Assistance process, users won’t be able to save multiple invitations with the same name to the same location. Figure B shows you an example of the text within an invitation file.

Figure B
This is the format of a saved invitation file.

Once the file is saved, users can transmit the file to the help desk in a variety of ways, including e-mail or a watched network folder.

Accepting and acting upon an invitation
At this point, the help desk should receive the invitation, either by e-mail, instant message, or by file, and can act on the invitation by double-clicking it. As you can see in Figure C, double-clicking on an invitation opens a screen that provides you with all the details associated with the invitation, such as who the invitation is from, when the invitation will expire, and whether or not a password is required.

Figure C
Double-clicking on an invitation provides you with the invitation’s details.

The help desk operator must then enter the password (if required) and click the Yes button at the bottom of the Remote Assistance dialog box. At this point, the person who issued the invitation will get a message indicating that the invitation has been accepted and that the assistant is ready to connect. The system then asks if they wish to allow the person to view their screen and chat with them.

When users allow the inbound connection, a window that’s similar to the one shown in Figure D will appear on both systems. As you can see, the window allows users and the assistant to have a chat session, communicate verbally, transfer files, or terminate the inbound connection.

Figure D
The Remote Assistance window allows verbal or chat-based communications and file transfers.

By default, the session is in View Only mode. This allows the assistance provider to see users’ screens but not control their systems. If users’ systems are configured in the Control Panel | System applet to allow Remote Control, the assistance provider can take control of users’ machines by clicking Take Control at the top of the Remote Assistance window.

Users will then be asked to give the assistance provider permission to take control. If users click Yes, both the users and the helper can move the cursor and interact with users’ systems. Users can revoke Remote Control or disconnect from the session at any time.