Remote Access: Have Browser, Will Work

By Joseph Moran | Posted March 28, 2005

Remember when "work" meant spending the hours between 9 AM and 5 PM inside an office? These days, a small businessperson likely spends much of the day in the field performing sundry tasks including visiting clients (or securing new ones). Remote access, the ability to connect to your office PC from a client's location or from home, can go a long way toward improving your productivity.

There was a time that "remote access" simply meant copying a file to a diskette so that you could work with it on another computer. Accessing a PC remotely isn't a new concept — it's been around in one form or another for quite a long time. Symantec's PCAnywhere — perhaps the best-known application in the genre — has been available for well over a decade.

On the other hand, remote access has always been fraught with compromise, and acquired a reputation as being difficult to set up and use.

Remote access over a dial-up modem often made for a less than satisfying experience, and depending on how far away you were from your computer, the telephone phone charges (often long-distance) could be substantial.

Speedy broadband connections eliminated the phone costs and made remote access almost as satisfying as actually sitting in front of the computer. But even with the Internet, using traditional remote access software has a down side, since getting remote access software to function reliably through a firewall can often be a trying exercise. Moreover, if your IP address changes periodically (as is common), maintaining the ability to consistently locate your remote system on the Internet requires extra configuration effort.

In recent years however, remote access technology has improved a great deal and evolved to address many of its shortcomings.

Service That makes You Smile
Perhaps the most noteworthy innovation has been the Web-based remote access service. Instead of having to buy, install and configure shrink-wrapped software on multiple systems, you simply download a small vendor-provided "agent" application on the computer you want to access. The agent lets you control the computer through a Web browser from virtually any other PC. The vendor maintains a server on the Internet that acts as an intermediary and facilitates the connection between the two systems.

Web-based remote access services typically require little if any firewall configuration. Since the software agent maintains a continuous connection with the vendor's servers (in much the same way that an instant messaging client such as AIM is always in touch with its own servers) incoming requests for remote access are treated as trusted traffic. If you're running a software firewall, you still may need to put the agent application on a list of trusted applications so it will be allowed to run.

The Web-based approach to remote access also gets around the problem of changing IP addresses. Since you're not accessing your computer directly but rather indirectly through the vendor's Web site, you don't need to know what your system's IP address is. Moreover, the agent informs the vendor's server whenever your IP address changes, so your system will always be reachable.

The flip side of service-based remote access is that unlike stand-alone software, you can't simply buy the application and be done with it. Instead, you will usually pay monthly or annual fees for as long as you use the service. These charges can become substantial over time, but when you consider the convenience and reliability you get for your money, it is often worth the cost.

Whether you get your remote access from a box or a Web site, the basic features that it provides are pretty much the same — you can use it to interact with your PC as if you were sitting in front of it. With remote access you can run applications, check e-mail, transfer files, or even send documents stored on your PC to a printer at your current location. All communications with the remote computer is provided via an encrypted connection, and you will typically enter a password in order to access the system.

Choices Abound
For the past couple of years, Citrix's GoToMyPC has been the major provider of Web-based remote access services. Lately though, other remote-access service providers have been getting into the game and offering additional features, lower pricing or both.


GoToMyPC

GoToMyPC
GoToMyPC's standard offering provides all of the remote capabilities outlined earlier, and the service recently added some additional features. These include the ability access a remote computer from a Windows-based Pocket PC handheld, or to invite a remote guest to look in on or share control of your computer. To enhance security, you can pre-generate a series of one-time passwords that you can print and take with you on the road. This gives each remote session its own unique password and reduces the chance that someone will be able to use your GoToMyPC account password to gain control of your system.

If you want to remotely control four or more machines, GoToMyPC Pro offers all the features of GoToMyPC and also adds administrative features like the ability to manage user accounts and generate reports on remote activity.

The biggest downside to GoToMyPC is the price, which tends to be quite expensive. The monthly fee for one computer costs $19.95 per month, or $179.40 if you pay a year in advance ($14.95 per month). GoToMyPC Pro costs $16.95 per-PC, per-month (minimum of four PCs), which drops the price to $12.95 per-PC, per-month when prepaying for an annual subscription.

MyWebExPC
WebEx, a well-known online meeting and collaboration services, now offers a remote access service as well called MyWebExPC.


MyWebEx

My WebExPC provides two levels of service, and the first has a price that can't be beat — it's free. Of course, there is always a catch, and in the case of MyWebExPC Free it's that you get only a very basic set of features — the free version doesn't let you transfer files to or from your remote PC, and it won't let you print remote documents on a local printer. To get these features, you must subscribe to the paid service called MyWebExPC Pro.

MyWebExPC Pro also provides some additional features that security-minded individuals may find useful. Its Application-Level Access Control lets you limit remote access to only specific applications.

To guard against appropriated passwords, the Pro version also provides Phone Authentication. Instead of entering a password into the Web site for access, you specify a phone number in advance. When you attempt to access the remote computer, you receive a call to that number and enter your PIN code via the telephone keypad before being granted access.

The cost for MyWebExPC Pro is $9.95 per month for each PC, and the price drops to $7.45 per month when you pre-pay for an annual subscription plan.

I'm InTouch
A company called 01 Communique has been around for a long time and is best known for communication applications like fax and voice-mail software. The company now also offers remote access software called I'm InTouch.

You can download the I'm InTouch agent application from the company Web site, but you also have the option to buy boxed software online or in retail stores. Despite this difference, I'm InTouch operates in much the same way as GoToMyPC or MyWebExPC, because once you install the software, you use the company's Web site to access your remote computer.

Aside from the distribution method, I'm InTouch offers a number of unique features. For instance, you can access your remote computer by using a variety of different mobile devices. These include Windows or Palm OS-based PDAs, the RIM Blackberry and even some Web-enabled cellular phones.

I'm InTouch also makes remote management of e-mail and contacts more convenient by providing a browser-based client that integrates with the copy of Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express running on your remote system. Whereas any remote-access product will let you access your e-mail application over a remote desktop session, I'm InTouch goes a step further by letting you compose, read and reply to e-mail, manage your calendar and access your contacts and tasks all via the browser without having to work directly with the application on your remote computer. Similarly, you can access the remote computer's file system or even view an installed Webcam without having to do it through a remote desktop session.


MyWebEx

Another useful e-mail feature — if you have a mobile device with a separate e-mail address, you can configure I'm InTouch to notify you when your Outlook software downloads new e-mail (or just from specific individuals).

Purchasing the boxed version of I'm InTouch from the company's Web site will set you back $99.95 +$7.95 for shipping. That buys you one year of remote access, after which the renewal cost is another $99.95 annually or $9.95 per month. (Unlike the other plans, month-to-month service is not available from the start.) Until May 15th 2005, 01 Communique is offering a reduced-cost upgrade of I'm InTouch for $49.95.

The Bottom Line
Each of the remote-access products discussed here has its individual strength. In the case of GoToMyPC, it's guest access and administrative flexibility. MyWebExPC distinguishes itself with a low price and innovative security features. I'm InTouch sets itself apart by its unique integration with Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express.

Perhaps most important, all three services offer free trial periods, so you'll be able to try before you buy. And no matter which one you ultimately choose, you're bound to find that the ability to access your office PC from anywhere makes you and your business more efficient and productive.

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in St. Petersburg, FL. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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