I recently had the pleasure of welcoming a new coworker into my office and showing them the ropes when it comes to supporting our Apple infrastructure. As I demonstrated system after system it struck me just how special, unique, and easy it is to support what we have working for us here where I work. After a while I think I started to take a lot of the tools for granted and stopped feeling how useful everything was, not really for the end users, although it is, but really for the IT staff charged with supporting the systems.
I started out showing off Apple Remote Desktop, or ARD for short. ARD allows an IT staff member to control almost every aspect of a network connected Apple workstation. Not only is there remote access, sharing of keyboard, video, and mouse present in the product but also all the under-the-covers instrumentation and manipulation that an administrator can do from their workstation, multicast out to all the connected client computers. Everything from running Unix commands on target workstations to copying files to many targets, which when you are dealing with Macintosh OSX means you can distribute a new application to workstations with only a few clicks, instead of having to copy and install on each workstation individually. ARD allows you to save the manipulations that you do so you can quickly build a toolbox of frequently performed remote actions or even schedule them to be done for you at a certain time. Amongst all that we do, this one single tool is one of the most useful and people who understand why swiss army knives are such awesome things to have in your professional toolkit will immediately understand why having such a tool at your disposal is so important to IT staff such as myself and my peers.
Then I started to show off some of the other less-talked-about technologies that have either been with Macintosh OSX for quite a while or were just introduced with Mountain Lion, the latest iteration of the Macintosh operating system. I demonstrated Automator, and how you can quickly assemble applications that automate many things the system can do on it’s own and then wove that with ARD to solve real world needs that users ask us to help them with regularly, or in the example that I used, that I was after myself. In this example there was a wish of mine to create two applications, one called “Good Morning” and the other called “Good Night” so when I click on either one they either open or close all the applications that I usually use without me having to involve myself with wandering the Dock and deciding each morning which applications I will use which ones I won’t use. So I opened Automator and went to the Utilities category and right there is “Open Application” action, so I just added this action many times for each of the apps I want my machine to start every morning, then a pause of a minute, and then a command to hide all applications. When I double-click on this one application all my other apps on my Dock start and then they all promptly hide from the interface giving me a machine that is ready to use and tidy. The other application I created, called “Good Night” closes all apps except for 1Password (which I prefer to leave open all the time). As I demonstrated this handy way to quickly prototype and publish applications to do custom things on a Mac I then showed how you could use the “Copy to Target” feature of ARD, so technically I could create these apps, then install them on all the client workstations with only a few mouse movements and a handful of clicks. Voilà, all done! It’s this kind of thing that makes supporting and being creative with a Mac a pleasure. It also makes some of the bigger IT headaches a cakewalk.
Then I showed off how Mountain Lion can accept dictation, making Dragon Dictation meaningless as well as TTS, which with the right voices makes a Mac really quite useful – especially for proofreading. Human brains often times will automatically correct bad spelling so when you are proofing text you can sometimes miss errors. The Mac TTS engine doesn’t have this flaw and speaks exactly what is written, so when you hear the TTS struggle over something on the screen, you can zoom in, find it, and correct what your brain accidentally did for you so it’s harder to miss errors. Of course, with ARD you can perform these tasks remotely, including activating the TTS engine on the target machine. While we don’t have a need for this at the moment, the idea that you could turn up the volume using ARD and then make the target Mac talk is quite a neat thing to witness.
Finally I demonstrated how using Mac’s implementation of OpenDirectory you can quickly create new users on the directory and manipulate rights. It put other systems to shame, and as I remember what had to be done with Novell’s ConsoleOne it kind of came home to me. I had forgotten all the old suffering and all the old issues that used to make managing eDirectory such a pain in the ass. It wasn’t until I was showing off how all this is done did I realize just how good I really have it with this technology.
I’ve read many articles all saying how difficult it is to support Macs in any kind of professional setting and frankly I don’t understand the reasoning behind that statement. OpenDirectory, ARD, Automator, Dictation, TTS – each of these technologies, to say nothing of Darwin running underneath everything as well as iCal and iChat makes me reel with incomprehensibility as to why people wouldn’t rush headlong towards an Apple infrastructure instead of the half-lit, half-baked, often-broken Windows alternatives, many of which don’t work and don’t out of such basic tools as Apple provides. It’s not my job anymore to push and drag people into the Apple way of being. I’m quite happy and with each experience my confidence and surety that Apple has the keys to the future become even more cemented in my mind. A classic example is when one of my Apple-using family has a problem using their computers and need help from me – this was always a classic drag through hell as I would attempt to provide technical support over the phone. It’s agony because you can’t see what they see and so you are much like a blind person trying to help someone sighted figure out a Rubik’s cube. Instead of all that, my family simply starts iChat, logs into Google Chat using that application which came with their computer out of the box and they right-click on my smiling face and click “Share my Desktop…” and instead of the blind leading the charge at the Rubik’s cube, suddenly the blind man can see! Solving an issue by seeing whats wrong radically changes how people like me can help people who need help. Personally this is delightful, professionally? It’s downright heavenly!
I have to admit that I spend perhaps too much of my daydreaming resources musing about what life would be like in my workplace if we collectively abandoned Microsoft operating systems and all migrated over to Apple systems. How radically different the help desk would be, how much we could all communicate and share with everyone on the same Jabber system, trading files, asking for help, screen sharing, ARD, Dictation, TTS, you name it! It just dazzles me and then when I open my eyes and remember what kind of technology the rank and file use, it stings. Only a few understand and enjoy all the benefits that come with having an IT staff that is fully enabled such as how we are here. Yes, I am tooting my own horn and I think it’s high time that I do. My users love how easy and effortless support comes, how structured it is and how technology has stopped being as much of an impediment as it was in the past. I know this to be true because they have told me many times these very things! I can’t force the hands of any of my peers and I certainly can’t access the rudder of this great ship we’re all in, but one small thing I can do is champion technology that works for us and to flog the hell out of it. It’s one of the many reasons why Apple can get away with many things that otherwise would upset me. For the core things they have brought into my life, they have earned a halo that deflects much that is negative.
I couldn’t imagine doing any of this any other way. It’s so far beyond Windows that it’s hilariously embarrassing. I don’t really believe that anything that I’ve written will ever sway a dyed-in-the-wool Microsoft fanboys, but that’s okay. I’m in heaven and I look down and notice all the others, down there and kick back and enjoy my happy little world.