August 7, 2006

Open source videos capture a new way to do tech support

Author: Tina Gasperson

An enterprising young computer scientist in Belgium has come up with a new twist on the old help desk. Instead of the tedium of step-by-step instructions over the phone or through instant messaging, tech support people can now show clients how to solve their computer problems using Bram Biesbrouck's ScreenKast software and captorials.com to create and share screen capture videos.

ScreenKast is a simple animated screen capture utility, licensed under the terms of the GPL. With it, Biesbrouck aims to prove that "a picture is worth a thousand words." "A lot of people come to me with their computer-related problems," he says. "Most of the time, these question are quite straightforward. But when trying to explain the solution, people tend to get confused by difficult words or computer slang." He decided to create a tool that would allow him to help others more efficiently.

ScreenKast consists of a library, called libinstrudeo, that captures the screen in real time and records it, and a KDE-based graphical user interface that sits on top of libinstrudeo. Biesbrouck hopes that other tech support types will want to use the videos to simplify interactions with stumped computer users, so he created a Web site, called captorials.com, to house instructional videos made by others using ScreenKast. He says the site is his way of providing an open source community model, "not only for the software (that was clear), but also the service itself. This way, people would be able to create videos to help other people out."

Visitors to captorials.com who have questions can request videos, or view the ones already posted at the site, such as "how to change your desktop background," or "copy a file to your USB storage device." My favorite video was "how to install libinstrudeo on Ubuntu," which even showed the same "gcc compiler missing" error that I got the first time I tried to configure the library. The video showed me what packages I needed to install before I could fully configure and compile the code (there were quite a few), saving me at least an hour of Googling.

Biesbrouck's interest in open source began when he was a student at the University of Ghent. "My professor told me about Linux and open source software. That was in the year 2000 I guess. I started off reading Richard Stallman and continued with the classics ("Cathedral and the Bazaar," etc). I got bitten by the open source bug and philosophy."

When Biesbrouck graduated in 2005, he started a Web development company, but his true desire was to help other people who wanted to learn how to use Linux and other open source software. Soon he was spending "one hundred percent" of his free time working on the ScreenKast project.

Biesbrouck says the software and service will never cost clients anything, but he hopes to make some money selling advertising on the captorials.com site. "The goal is to provide a business-level service where I help companies to 'visualise' their helpdesk," he says. "It's all brand new and I'll need to put things straight in my head first, but that's the target."

So far, Biesbrouck is the only video author at captorials.com, but he hopes that will change soon. "The building systems of ScreenKast and libinstrudeo were broken on release, causing a lot of problems during compilation," he says. "This should have been solved now. ScreenKast 0.1.2 was released yesterday, and I expect some videos to come in now."

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