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Friday Favorite: Mac HelpMate


I'll open this Friday Favorite with a caveat -- Mac HelpMate is not an app that just anyone is going to want to license. However, if you're a Mac consultant and/or do system support for many Mac users, this is an application you should consider.

Mac HelpMate is the brainchild of Dean Shavit, an Apple Certified System Administrator based in Chicago, Illinois. Dean's goal in producing Mac HelpMate was to eliminate many of the issues that Mac support professionals deal with when trying to perform remote support tasks for their clients. What are those issues? Usually, they consist of trying to reach the end user's network through a maze of firewalls and routers. For example, one of the major issues with Apple's Back To My Mac remote access and control technology is that it doesn't work with many cable or DSL modems that don't support UPnP (Universal Plug-and-Play) or NAT-PMP (NAT - Port Mapping Protocol).

Mac HelpMate provides zero-configuration remote access through a proxy server run by Shavit's company, eliminating the hassles of trying to talk clients through configuration of their Macs and network hardware.

The Mac HelpMate software is licensed, not sold, free for download, and many Mac consultants make it available for their clients at no cost. Mac HelpMate is a group of open-source tools that are tied together in a clean Mac user interface (by the way, there's also a Windows version available). What the consultants pay for is the service that Dean Shavit's company, MOST Training and Consulting, provides. That service consists of a proxy server that connects the user computer to the Mac support professional's computer using strong encryption. MOST also customizes the Mac HelpMate software for consultants by placing a virtual business card on the main window of the application.

As an Apple consultant, I make Mac HelpMate available for free to my clients on my company website. They can use it to run routine maintenance on their Macs, and if they run into issues they just need to fire up the software, click on the virtual business card, and share their computer. Once they contact me, I launch Mac HelpMate on my Mac and I can see that they have connected to the server, at which time I can control their machine, run diagnostics, and even provide remote hands-on training. That's one thing that users tend to like about Mac HelpMate -- I can't just take over control of their Mac at any time, they actually have to originate the connection.

That user-initiation would be a problem when your "client" is actually a remote server. In that case, Shavit has an auto-activated version of his software called Auto HelpMate. System Administrators register each server with the proxy server, after which time they can see whether or not a server is operating properly simply by going to a secure website. To control the server, the administrator turns on sharing through the Auto HelpMate website, and then uses the stock Mac HelpMate software to operate the remote server.

One alternative to Mac HelpMate is iChat's Screen Sharing capability. However, it requires that the remote user have an iChat account that is up and running. That's not often the case with Mac users that consultants support. iChat also lacks the many diagnostic tools that are built into Mac HelpMate.

At far left below is a the menu for the diagnostics menu, which the consultant can use to get more information about the machine that is undergoing troubleshooting. The next menu features a list of common tools to clean up and hopefully speed up a balky Mac.

For the consultant, there are additional commands that can be run remotely. Of particular interest are the SMART test results, which can indicate an imminent drive failure.

Finally, either the client or consultant can set up the Mac to perform standard cleanup tasks on an ongoing basis using the Auto display seen below.

All in all, I find the application to be one of my favorite tools for assisting clients, since it allows me to work out some issues without having to hop in the car and drive to a client's office or home. If you're an Apple consultant and you're planning on attending Macworld Expo, be sure to register for Dean's Mac HelpMate workshop on Monday evening.

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