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Just a Thought - Pondering Remote Desktops In OS X

by - September 7th, 2004

In The Nightmare Before Christmas, there was a scene where Dr. Finklestein is studying something while waiting for Sally to bring him his lunch. As he ponders and stares at an object through a strange microscope, he absently flips open the top of his skull and scratches at the grey matter inside the same way you or I would scratch at an itchy scalp.

When I ponder the marketing strategies of Microsoft and Apple, my brain gets to itching something fierce, and I need some serious hands-on relief. For instance, I can't figure out why Big Redmond insisted on making Windows XP Home Edition. The company basically removed applications and features they thought you wouldn't need at home. The thing is, many people often wind up needing one or more of those features, especially when they use their computers to interact with those at their company or other PCs on their home network.

This situation came to light for me recently when I was helping someone install Nortel Networks Contivity Client on a laptop loaded with Windows XP Home Edition.

(Note: The Nortel Contivity Client is used to establish a Virtual Private Network(VPN) connection to a Nortel server, and thus allows you to access your company's firewall-protected network from the Internet.)

I've installed the Nortel client on many Windows 2000 and XP PCs before without a hitch, so I was very puzzled to see an error during this particular install which said, in affect, that there was something in the Nortel software that XP was unhappy about, and that if we insisted on installing the software we could be in for some unexpected and unfortunate circumstances in the future. The installation software then politely asked if we would like to continue the installation. We did, and nothing happened. As near as I could tell, the Home Edition of XP was missing something which is in XP Professional that says that installing the Nortel client was a good thing to do.

There are other things missing from Windows XP Home Edition (WXPHE) that'll get you scratching your noodle as to why the Boyz at Redmond left it out; one feature in particular is Remote Desktop.

WXPHE won't let you access your PC from another PC. Apparently, the Boyz at Redmond believe that you will never, say, be on a laptop out in the garden, and need to create a shared folder from your PC in the den: Without your den PC having the ability to act as a remote desktop server, you'll have to get up and walk to the den to set up the share, which defeats the whole purpose of being wireless in the first place.

Big Redmond did do one thing right, however -- Microsoft is actually doing this better than Apple is at the moment -- the company provided WXPHE with Remote Desktop Client software, so that you can access XP Professional PCs or Remote Desktop Servers. Microsoft actually makes, and provides for free, versions of their Remote Desktop Client for other platforms, including OS X, so, from your Mac, you can login on any XP Professional PC that allows a Remote Desktop session (it has to be turned on). This is coolness in the extreme, and something that should be available on OS X by default, given its UNIX underpinnings.

Understand that logging in remotely has always been a feature of UNIX and Linux; in fact, there are several ways to do it, but the most secure way is to use a Secure Shell (SSH), session. OS X does provide this feature, but it does not allow you to use the Aqua interface remotely. To do that you have to use Apple's Remote Desktop software, and it does not allow you to login between client Macs, just from server to client. Also, I don't know of any consumer who would pay $500 just for the ability to log on remotely to another Mac.

So, more brain scratching: Why is Apple not providing the ability to remotely login into an Aqua desktop? Why allow this feature to exist via SSH, and X11, yet not provide it via Aqua? It's 80% there, and doing so would not hurt Apple Remote Desktop 2 sales; that software is geared for administrators. All I'm talking about is providing the consumer and easy way to access another Mac.

Yes, I know that once you've logged into another Mac, UNIX, or Linux computer via SSH, you can send a windowed displayed back to your Mac using X11. While this is not a hard thing to do, it is not for the casual user familiar only with OS X's Aqua interface. Does Apple think that Aqua users don't have the need to access one Mac from another at home. You would think that since Apple is all about wireless networking, they would make such access easy. Scratch! Scratch! Scratch!

OK, so you want to log into your Mac in the den from you wireless laptop, what can you do? Well, if you don't mind spending a little cash, there's always Timbuktu Pro For Mac OS X, from Netopia, which will let you log into any computer running the Timbuktu app. Timbuktu will set you back $179 for a 2-Mac license. Not cheap, but it does work very well and has the support of an established company behind it.

For the more adventurous or those on a budget, there are several freeware/shareware applications, but I would recommend finding and using an OS X version of VNC (Virtual Network Computing). From what I can tell, there are 2 versions available, VNC Thing, and OSXVNC. These are freeware, so your mileage may vary, but VNC has been around for quite some time. If anyone has any experience with these or any other VNC or remote desktop product on OS X, please post it below.

Even with all of these apps available, I believe there is still a need for Apple to come up with an easy to use, Mac to Mac remote login app. Macs are about ease of use, after all, so Apple, make it easy on us and include this feature in Tiger, please!

If you're Windows user and are trying to decide between buying XP Professional and XP Home Edition; BUY XP PROFESSIONAL and relieve that itchy-brain syndrome.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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