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Remote desktop software: 8 enterprise-friendly IT support tools

For many companies, IT support has typically meant a member of the help desk walking over to an employee’s desk and looking over their shoulder to fix any problems, or a quick one-to-one connection between an IT staffer and a remote office employee. With a majority of employees and IT staffers now working at home due to Covid-19, the need for enterprise-level software that can support these larger numbers has also grown.

Remote access tools have been around for years, with a range of features and benefits for companies and individuals looking to help less tech-savvy users with computer issues and maintenance. At its base level, the software creates a secure connection between one person’s computer and a remote connection, allowing the first user to operate the second computer as if they were in the same room. Once the connection is made, several other features such as screen sharing, program installation, file transfer, text chat, and audio and video communications are supported.

Many of these features are also seen in other categories of software, such as web conferencing or videoconferencing apps, which can confuse buyers looking at options for their IT remote assistance needs. In addition, many companies that offer remote support software also offer remote monitoring and management tools, which can actively or passively monitor equipment and devices beyond an employee’s desktop.

There is good news, however: Many of the remote assistance software companies offer tiered levels, allowing for a free download, trial or entry-level version for users to try out, with professional and/or enterprise versions that expand the number of licenses or concurrent sessions allowed. So this category lends itself very well to the idea of “try before you buy.”

Presented below are quick descriptions and links to some of the more popular options for enterprise remote assistance tools, based on our research of the market and the features that most companies would likely need. Your individual feature needs may vary, so head to the company’s website to learn more details about each tool.

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Containers on the desktop? You bet — on Windows 10X

Although containers emerged from the land of Linux, Microsoft has wholeheartedly embraced them. Beginning with Windows Server 2016, the company began offering two types of Docker-compatible containers: Windows Server containers and Hyper-V containers. And six years after that fateful day when Microsoft announced it loved Linux, developers today routinely plug apps in Docker containers on any Linux distro supported by the Windows Linux Subsystem or the Azure cloud.

But…containers on the desktop? That would be a sea change in the way Windows handles desktop applications, enabling Windows apps to install as quickly and effortlessly as mobile apps. In fact, this appears to be the plan for the quirky Windows 10X, scheduled to arrive with a wacky new Surface device this fall. 

Announced in October 2019, Windows 10X was developed for Microsoft’s Surface Neo, a picturebook-like device that opens to reveal two side-by-side, tablet-sized screens. The Neo’s little brother, the Surface Duo, runs a modified Android operating system instead of Windows 10X (and includes telephony features, although Microsoft wisely refuses to call it a phone). Interestingly, at Microsoft’s 365 Developer Day last month, the company announced that its dual-screen SDK for Xamarin.Forms can be used to develop applications compatible with both devices.

So where do containers come in? Well, first off, these are not Docker containers. Instead, Microsoft appears to be using containers to demonstrate that it has learned from past attempts to drag developers into a new world that breaks sharply with the past (Universal Windows Platform, anyone?). Rather than force developers to build new applications from scratch for Windows 10X, they can wrap those apps in containers that include a backward-compatible file system and registry that enable Win32 apps to run with little modification. More ambitious developers can write to the new 10X APIs so apps can span the dual screens and access other native features.

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In spite of the disappearing Windows desktop bug, now’s a good time to install the February patches

It’s frustrating when Microsoft refuses to acknowledge a widespread bug in one of its mainstream patches. This month we’re looking at a major bug that’s drawn a tiny mention on a Microsoft Answers Forum post — and that’s it. Such is the state of Windows transparency these days.

On the plus side, though, we have enough experience with the bug to be able to recognize and fix it should you be so unlucky as to encounter it.

Other than that one glaring (if infrequent) bug, there are some minor problems, but, on the whole, now would be a good time to get your system updated. Here’s how.

Make a full backup

Make a full system image backup before you install the latest patches.

There’s a non-zero chance that the patches — even the latest, greatest patches of patches of patches — will hose your machine. Best to have a backup that you can reinstall even if your machine refuses to boot. This, in addition to the usual need for System Restore points.

There are plenty of full-image backup products, including at least two good free ones: Macrium Reflect Free and EaseUS Todo Backup

Running Win10? I’m moving to version 1909 and suggest you do, too.

If you’re running Win10 version 1803, 1809, Server 1809, Server 2019 or any earlier version of Windows 10, I urge you to upgrade to Win10 version 1903 or 1909. (You can find your version by typing winver in the Search box in the lower left corner and pressing Enter.) There are detailed instructions for making the move in the article “Why — and how — I’m moving Win10 production machines to version 1903.”

Win10 1903 is far from perfect, but it seems to be relatively stable at this point. The one huge advantage to version 1903: It lets everybody pause updates with a few simple clicks. That feature has my vote for the most important (perhaps the only important) upgrade to Win10 in the past four years. 

It looks like Microsoft has finally fixed the glaring bug in Win10 version 1909 — the one that made File Explorer’s Search box completely useless. We saw a minor improvement in the January cumulative update, but the February cumulative update, KB 4532693, seems to fix the problem completely. Of course, there’s been no acknowledgment or even a description from Microsoft, but as best I can tell File Explorer Search is working now. Yes, the bug’s been in there since 1909 shipped.

At any rate, I’m moving my production machines to 1909. Moving from Win10 version 1903 to 1909 is quite easy. After making a full backup, click Start > Settings (the gear icon) > Update & Security. If you don’t see the Download and install link shown in the screenshot, click Check for updates and it should appear.

1909 download and install now updated Woody Leonhard/IDG

Click on the link marked Download and install and wait. When you reboot, Win10 will be on version 1909, build 18363.657. That’s the build of 1909 that corresponds to the February cumulative update. It does not include the “optional, non-security, C/D Week” patch KB 4535996, which you don’t want.  

Install the Win10 February Cumulative Update

If you just moved to Win10 version 1909, per the preceding section, you already have the February Cumulative Update, KB 4532693. Breathe easy.

If you’re staying with Win10 version 1903, I certainly sympathize. If you were already running Win10 version 1909, I admire your bravery. To get the February Cumulative Update installed, click Start > Settings > Update & Security. If you see a Resume updates box (screenshot), click on it.

1903 updates paused Woody Leonhard/IDG

That’s all you need to do. Windows, in its infinite wisdom, will install the February Cumulative Update at its own pace. If you don’t see a Resume updates box, you already have the February Cumulative update and all is right in this, the best of all possible worlds.

When your machine comes back up for air, don’t panic if your desktop doesn’t look right, or you can’t log in to your usual account. You got bit by the “temporary profile” bug, which we’ve known about — and complained about — for weeks. We have three separate threads on AskWoody about solving the problem [1, 2, 3] and if you need additional help, you can always post a question. (Thx, @PKCano.)

Note: According to a report on the site,the “optional, non-security, C/D Week” patch for Win10 version 1903 and 1909, KB 4535996, has the same profile-eating bug as its predecessor. Caveat updator.

If you see an offer that says “Optional updates available,” just ignore it. You aren’t being paid enough to beta test Microsoft’s next set of patches.

While you’re mucking about in Windows Update, it wouldn’t hurt to Pause updates, to take you out of the direct line of fire the next time Microsoft releases a buggy bunch of patches. Click Start > Settings > Update & Security. Click “Pause updates for 7 days.” Next, click on the newly revealed link, which says “Pause updates for 7 more days,” four more times. That pauses all updates for 35 days, until early April. With a little luck that’ll be long enough for Microsoft to fix any bugs it introduces in March.

We’ll have new observations and suggestions as the month winds on.

Patch Win7, Win8.1, or associated servers

If you’ve paid for Win7 Extended Security Updates and you’re having trouble getting them installed, Microsoft has a new article called Troubleshoot issues in Extended Security Updates that may be of help. We’re also fielding questions on AskWoody.

If you haven’t paid for Extended Security Updates but want to keep WIn7 protected, 0patch has started publishing patches that cover some of the security holes plugged by the paid Extended Security Updates.

Windows 8.1 continues to be the most stable version of Windows around. To get this month’s puny Monthly Rollup installed, follow AKB 2000004: How to apply the Win7 and 8.1 Monthly Rollups. You should have one Windows patch, dated Feb. 11 (the Patch Tuesday patch). 

After you’ve installed the latest Monthly Rollup, if you’re intent on minimizing Microsoft’s snooping, run through the steps in AKB 2000007: Turning off the worst Win7 and 8.1 snooping. If you want to thoroughly cut out the telemetry, see @abbodi86’s detailed instructions in AKB 2000012: How To Neutralize Telemetry and Sustain Windows 7 and 8.1 Monthly Rollup Model.

Thanks to the dozens of volunteers on who contribute mightily, especially @sb, @PKCano, @abbodi86 and many others.

We’ve moved to MS-DEFCON 3 on the AskWoody Lounge.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Anticipating IBM’s coming virtual desktop pivot

(Disclosure:  Most of the vendors listed are clients of the author.)

One of the biggest mistakes IBM ever made was abandoning the desktop market, a decision it partially reversed when it partnered with Apple a few years back.  But with the realization that IBM, and not Google, is the number three Cloud provider in the US – and that Microsoft is soon going to be driving its Azure Virtual Desktop to market – it seems likely that IBM may bring forth its own offering. 

Now that IBM is being led by Arvind Krishner (its version of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who is clearly behind Microsoft’s desktop cloud pivot), it is likely IBM will come to a similar conclusion. And IBM has some interesting advantages, not the least of which is that the company’s mainframe platform and partnership with NVIDIA could make it very competitive. 

Let’s explore IBM’s potential return to the desktop. 

What IBM lost

When IBM stepped back from the PC market, the reasoning was sound financially but flawed from an image perspective.  Before that, enterprise accounts were often saturated by IBM desktop products; you’d see their brand on monitors and PCs in most major companies. Once IBM left, Lenovo generally stepped into the void, turning that company from being  nearly unknown in the US to becoming a true IT powerhouse. 

Yes, IBM got rid of a troubled business (at the time), but the collateral damage to the corporate brand was near catastrophic.  

There was a reason that Louis Gerstner, the strongest marketing-oriented CEO IBM has ever had, built the strongest marketing organization in tech at the time while retaining the troubled PC business: because every PC was an IBM billboard.  He understood that the cost to IBM’s image for divesting its PC  business would be catastrophic.  

IT sales are often connected to visible advocacy, and with the IBM brand disappearing from offices, IBM lost that visibility.

Why IBM teamed up with Apple

Now, IBM did partner with Apple to help offset lost revenues. But the Apple tie-up had three inherent problems:

Apple partners incredibly badly. It’s overly aggressive about preserving margin and often drives its partners out of business as a result. 

Apple can’t spell “IT,” and the company seems to have a cultural belief that IT people are mentally challenged, making it very hard for the firm to interact with IT decision-makers. 

Apple’s products carry the Apple brnad, not IBM’s, and they are generally not designed to meet enterprise requirements. Just compare IBM’s, now Lenovo’s, ThinkPad brand to the Mac, iPad, or iPhone. 

Two other things strike me as problematic with this partnership.  One is that IBM lives security in-depth and works with the industry to reduce global threats.  Apple uses security by obscurity, isn’t transparent, and doesn’t work with the industry to reduce global threats.

While the two firms started very similar, with little transparency and a lock-in strategy, IBM tday is one of the most open companies in the world – and because lock-in almost took it out, the company is all about assuring market competition now.  

The cloud desktop uses a mainframe framework

IBM’s market-dominant technology is the mainframe, which has advantages in security, I/O, scaling and reliability.  Mainframes were originally designed to work with terminals, which remain the thinnest of the thin-client type products. The benefits are almost identical between terminals and cloud clients, and IBM is arguably the leading remaining terminal expert. 

Much as Microsoft determined it needed the Surface (granted, that was then-CEO Steve Ballmer, not Satya Nedella) to compete with Apple’s iPad, I think IBM will determine it needs a Virtual Desktop solution to compete with Dell and Microsoft (and maybe Amazon who, I expect, will also eventually enter the Virtual Desktop segment).  

Initially, I’d expect IBM to try to use the Apple iPad Pro for this. But Apple’s poor partnering skills and IBM’s lack of brand visibility will drive it to come up with a more IBM-centric alternative so it can fully embrace the Virtual Desktop opportunity and showcase its massive technical and experience advantage.  

Wrapping up

Microsoft is about to pivot to the Azure Virtual Desktop, and that move, like all major pivots, will be very disruptive.  The tech vendor with the best chance to counter is IBM, because it has a deeper background on the hardware needed for this level of loading at what is massive scale. 

Neither Microsoft nor IBM has all the parts in place, in fact, except for their competing Cloud services. But the two firms dovetail almost as nicely as they did when they partnered to create the PC in the first place. 

With IBM putting in place a cloud specialist as CEO – one who is similar to Microsoft’s – it should come to similar conclusions. And those conclusions should eventually put IBM back on the corporate desktop, at first with Apple hardware, eventually with a solution that will better match the current and emerging IT needs for a desktop appliance. 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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CES, 5G and the shift to the cloud desktop

(Editor’s note: Most of the companies mentioned in this post are clients of the author.)

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is arguably the most powerful tech event in North America. Increasingly, it has less to do with consumer electronics – having morphed into areas like healthcare and automobiles.  At the show, you not only get a sense of where technology advancement is now, but where it is going, both by listening to the announcements and by viewing the prototypes of products that may be months or years away – if they ever show up at all. 

At this year’s CES, it was clear that much of what we saw needed cloud service to make it fully functional.  From ever smarter personal robots to health monitoring hardware to entertainment devices that connect to streaming services, the cloud enabled their hybrid use.  Even automobiles were showcased as not only needing to talk to each other and pedestrians (because too many of us walk with our heads in our smartphones), but to the cloud to manage updates, patches, and better security.  Blackberry (yes, they’re still around) led with this security-focused automotive effort. 

But it was the resurgence of PCs I found the most interesting.  Not only were there some incredibly fascinating new designs at CES this year, including the use of head-mounted displays, but there was also a clear push to showcase how 5G is going to shift application loads from the device to the cloud.

Lenovo’s Dominance

At this year’s show, Lenovo dominated the PC space with Lenovo executives – and  cutting-edge PCs – at the Qualcomm, AMD and Intel events.  At its event, Qualcomm called Lenovo out as the first 5G PC maker pointing to Lenovo’s Qualcomm-based PC that blends the advantages of connectivity and light weight with long battery life.  (Traditionally, the belief was that with light weight, performance and battery life, you could only pick two, not all three.)

At the AMD event, the company’s performance-focused laptops were highlighted, one of which even had a cover LED display.  And at the Intel event, the company’s  revolutionary ThinkPad Fold X1 folding laptop showcased the first production folding-screen laptop. (Both Dell and Intel had folding-screen prototypes at the event, too.)

Lenovo did a better job making sure its hardware took center stage at all of the opening events I attended.  But it was the Qualcomm event that most stood out in my mind. 

By the way, Lenovo will be bringing NEC laptops to the U.S. this year, and one of them, the NEC LaVie Pro, is a ful-featured laptop that weighs in at 1.85 pounds, or nearly a pound lighter than the MacBook Air. I held it, and it felt like it was an empty prototype; I still can’t get over how light it was.

Qualcomm 5G and Lenovo

As I noted, Lenovo was uniquely identified at the Qualcomm event as the first to have a fully capable 5G laptop as part of “Project Limitless.” I’ve been using Qualcomm Snapdragon-based notebooks on and off for the last several years and while the initial models were underpowered, current models are more than adequate for most productive workers. 

They won’t run CAD, aren’t powerful enough for advanced photo or film editing, and if you want to play a video game, chances are you would be happier with a more powerful PC.  But during the announcement, Qualcomm pointed out that this class of notebook is designed to connect to the cloud where you can run high-powered applications and games using cloud-based hardware in the workstation-class.  These services are on top of Microsoft’s moves to roll out the Azure Virtual Desktop, which  effectively changes your PC into a terminal for normal operations. 

Wrapping up: Everything is moving to the cloud, even your PC

At CES, pretty much everything was connected to some part of the cloud. These connected devices included the new PCs and notebooks with an emphasis on 5G. In addition to Lenovo’s efforts, HP was showcased with Intel and its Dragonfly notebook (which I was carrying at the show). The Dragonfly will also be one of the first 5G-connected notebooks. 

The arrival of 5G should begin the shift of applications from the desktop to the cloud, starting with performance applications and then moving to productivity applications, with a timeline that should complete by the end of the decade. 

CES is again showing us the future – and our future will involve shifting application loading from the desktop into the cloud in phases. 

The first phase started this year at CES.  

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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