Monday, April 2, 2018

Helping others to communicate via the Internet

Many of us have been frustrated by relatives and loved ones who seem constantly at odds with their information technology, and have been through scenarios like this:

Visit a technology-intimidated loved one, and at their request set up laptop or desktop, create accounts, icons, etc, to make everything ‘easy’ for them to reach you via Skype or Whatsapp, or to follow you on Facebook, or open an email trail, or a folder of photographs, or whatever their desire. Then train them in how to use the machine to get what they want. Have them practice run-throughs until you’re sure they know what to do.

And a week later, the phone call, telling you it ‘doesn’t work anymore’, or something ‘disappeared’, or they’ve forgotten, or lost the paper they wrote it down on. And now you have to get it working again, over the phone.

How frustrating is it to remotely manage a fix with a self-confessed computer illiterate? Just ask Ronny Chieng.


My thoughts turned to simplifying matters, by creating a set of desktop icons to launch oft-repeated processes. For example, an icon that will ‘call Ronny on Skype’ when double-clicked.

I thought, there must be an app or a program to help with this. But couldn’t find one. And after a few conversations with IT professionals, I can kind of see why – because methods that work with one application won’t work with another, and because frequent updates to software mean that anything written specifically for an application may have to be updated as well. While creating an app wouldn’t be too hard to do, keeping it updated would become a bore, and increasing the number of programs it could support would increase its complexity until it becomes self-defeating.

Not to be deterred, I’ve put together a few ideas, for Windows machines, using different approaches, which any computer literate can put into practice quickly and easily, and use for inspiration to develop other ideas and approaches. But don’t call Ronny if it doesn’t work.

They all create a desktop icon which when double-clicked will activate the machine to undertake a particular task (like ‘call Ronny on Skype’).

If after reading this, you’ve other suggestions, then email me and I’ll elegantly integrate them. Unless they’re rude suggestions.

These techniques demand in turn increasing levels of technical proficiency on the part of the implementer, but nothing demanding.


1.       Ghost Mouse and the mouse. A painless easy fix, that will work for a while.

Step by Step:

1.       Download and install Ghost Mouse Free. Ghost Mouse is so easy: you start the recorder, then do what you want, then stop the recorder, then save the result to the desktop (giving it a name first) and close Ghost Mouse. There’s now an icon on the desktop with the filename you designated. Open this and click the play button, and Ghost Mouse executes the series of mouse and/or keystrokes you recorded.

2.       There is no step 2. But keep in mind that if things change on the computer, there’s a good chance your saved Ghost Mouse sequence won’t work anymore.

Ghost Mouse will replicate any sequence equally well, no matter what program you want to launch. But if you use mouse strokes for your recording, it will only work as long as everything stays in the same place on the computer’s Graphical User Interface (GUI) or screen. Which might be a long time, might be a short time, depending on a variety of things – any kind of update may re-arrange things, for instance – after which your recorded movements no longer align with the right spots on the GUI or program menus. Or an automated Windows update will re-arrange desktop items – that will mess it up just as easily.

Think about it a bit: you’ll find ways to extend the working period of your GM sequence. Here's one good way: using keystrokes and text searches instead of mouse movements:


2.       Ghost Mouse and keystrokes. With longevity in mind, here’s how to use only keystrokes to call someone in particular on Skype, which you can record as a Ghost Mouse sequence:

1.       Type the Windows key (the trapezium, bottom second from left on a Windows keyboard) and ‘r’ together. This opens a ‘run’ window

2.       Type ‘skype’ into the dialog box (helpfully already selected) and ‘return’

3.       When skype opens (assuming you have it set up to avoid having to re-enter a password each time it launches), type in the name of the person you want to call. Skype helpfully sticks this into the search dialog.

4.       Once there’s only one result left under your search dialog (ie. the person you want to call), simply ‘return’ and Skype will open that contact. Don’t wait too long though, as Skype reverts after a period of seconds, back to the full contact list.

5.       Pressing ‘control’ ‘shift’ and ‘r’ together will initiate a voice call. Alternatively, pressing ‘control’, ‘shift’ and ‘k’ together will initiate a video call.

And there you have it. Record it with Ghost Mouse and it will work for a while, probably longer than the simpler, quicker method of recording mouse movements. 

Whichever method you use, probably a good idea to give the new shortcut a special icon and an evocative name.

What works for Skype will work as well on other programs, but you’ll have to do your own research on keystroke sequences there. And if you do, let me know and I’ll add it here.


3.       Hack. For Skype again, here’s a more ‘technical’ approach to building a single button that will make the call you want made. It uses a small piece of Windows code that will likely work for a long time, even across upgrades.

1.       Find the file ‘skype.exe’. Right click on it and create a ‘shortcut’. Place the shortcut on the desktop (if you didn’t create it there in the first place).

2.       Now find the shortcut on the desktop, right click and select Properties. Once the Properties window pops up, it will (helpfully) highlight a dialog in a dialog box called ‘Target’. The dialog will say something like:
"C:\Program Files (x86)\Skype\Phone\Skype.exe"
Just put that aside for the moment.

3.       Launch Skype and navigate to ‘contacts’. Find the name of the contact for whom you wish to make a simple call button, and right click it. I’m going to use the Skype Echo test for my example – it works just the same as any other contact but isn’t a real person. In the window that opens, there’s a line “Skype: echo123”. This line identifies the actual skype username for this account (so the actual username for Skype’s Echo/Sound Test Service is ‘echo123’). Skype has made it impossible to cut and paste this username, so make a note of it somewhere, copy it down.

4.       Now return to the dialog open in Step 2 above. Where you see the ‘Target’ dialog, click in that space, and move to the end of the dialog. Then insert the following code, beginning with a ‘space’ before the first quotation mark:
(Again, I’m using Skype’s Echo test for my example – you should replace it with the Skype username of the person you want to call).
So now your whole line in the Target dialogue should read:
"C:\Program Files (x86)\Skype\Phone\Skype.exe" "/callto:echo123"

5.       That’s it. Click ‘OK’ and the properties box disappears. And when you double click on the shortcut on the desktop, it opens Skype and calls that person.

6.       Change the name of the shortcut, change the icon, to suit yourself.

7.       Why doesn’t Skype integrate the process described above? So that when you right click on a name in the contact list, it offers ‘create shortcut to call this person’ as an option.

That’s it from me. Again, please let me know if you have any other helpful suggestions.

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