Everything Else

The Little Engine That Can

A Helix Update for RADE Owners

10 August 2006 — Some — in fact, many — of you may be shocked by this message, considering all of our recent emphasis on the positive, visible results of our work. But here it is: there’s more to Helix than just Helix Client/Server and Helix Maintenance Manager. In fact, there are two other vitally important Helix products: Helix RADE and Helix Engine. If you are a Helix RADE user, this message is for you.

Over the years, these two products have gone by a variety of names. The first was originally called Helix. Then Double Helix. Then Double Helix II. Then Helix Express. And now Helix RADE. All are names for the same thing. It’s the core Helix tool; the one you use to create a Helix collection. Deploying it for daily use is typically left to the other Helix applications, but it all begins with you building the structure of the collection using RADE. And for what it is worth, RADE stands for Rapid Application Development Environment and is pronounced “raid” not “rad.”

As in physics, there is a dual-nature to most aspects of the Helix universe. Take Helix Client and Helix Server for instance. One can’t exist without the other. In Helix RADE this duality is seen in Full Mode and Custom Mode, more recently called Design Mode and User Mode respectively, or as some people refer to them: inside and outside.

Then there’s another inside/outside aspect, where inside is here at QSA ToolWorks, where we create and improve your Helix products, and outside is where the fruits of our labor are put to use by you, the loyal Helix user. From that inside perspective, one sees and hears some really incredible things. We’ve always known that our three predecessors did a thoroughly inadequate job of delineating the identities and functions of the components of the Helix product family, to the point that the average Helix user can not distinguish the differences between them. But we’ve never fully realized to what degree that is the case until recently.

For example, a lot of people contact us to make sure they can use the new macOS native Helix only to discover that the one they want (RADE) still requires Classic. They don’t really understand the difference between the Helix Client/Server Toolkit and Helix RADE. The conversation goes something like this…

“Helix runs in macOS now, right?” the customer asks.

In an attempt to clarify things, we respond, “Do you use Helix as a single user or in a multiuser setting?”

One user actually told us that they use it in a multiuser setting and were ready to purchase the new macOS Server until they found out that it required at least three computers; one to serve and two (minimum) to visit. “We only have one Mac,” they said.

“Well, then you’re not really using it in a multiuser setting,” we replied.

“Yes we are,” the customer shot back. “Our secretary does the input at the keyboard and the rest of us sit near her and tell her what to type.”

Pretty incredible stuff. And even more incredible is how perfectly happy they seem to be using it that way!

A code in the node… (A bicycle built for  ?  )

Occasionally, while hunting through the user base, we come across users with an unusually large copy of RADE. To be clear, a “normal” copy of RADE is licensed for one node, or seat. That means that copy is licensed for use on only one machine at a time. If another copy of that RADE license is launched while the first one is in use, a message informs the user that their license does not allow them to do that. It’s like two people trying to ride a single-seat bicycle.

For this reason, some customers buy a two-node RADE license. This allows two people to use two copies of RADE on their network simultaneously, working on two separate collections. It also allows one person to open two collections at once. This makes perfectly good sense where there are two Helix collections in use doing unrelated things, or when someone wants to take advantage of Helix’s ability to copy-and-paste structure between collections.

But every so often, we see someone with a three-, four- or even a five-node RADE license. When we investigate this situation, we almost inevitably find someone running multiple copies of the same collection in a single office. Each user is in their own little world, entering and retrieving data. At the end of the work day or work week, a fairly knowledgeable user combines the input from all the copies into a single “master” copy (usually using a function that was once so common that the term dump-and-load is part of every old-timer’s Helix vocabulary, although these days it goes by the less colorful export/import) and then distributes an up-to-date copy of the collection to each user.

These people could save themselves a lot of effort by using Helix Client/Server. But when we ask Why not?, the usual explanation is that they simply didn’t know; no one had ever explained it to them.

Hold it! What does any of this have to do with RADE?

Well… while there are now lots and lots of happy macOS native Helix Server users — and there will be even more and happier ones when we let the native Helix Client out of the laboratory — there are many, many more Helix RADE users who are not so happy.

How many more? Tough to say. Here comes some fuzzy math. Basically, for every Helix RADE license there are nearly twice as many Client/Server licenses. But nearly every Client/Server owner is also a RADE owner. And knowing anything for sure was made all the more difficult because by 1998, Helix users, like other Mac users, were fleeing the Mac like sheep to the Wintel platform. To make matters worse, the second owner of Helix was a bit cagey when it came to supplying the third owner with two important pieces of information: who the users were and which products they owned.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the third owner made the extremely short-sighted decision that they would not sell upgrades at all! Everybody who “upgraded” in the Helix 4.5.3–4.5.5 era was simply sold a new license, complete with new serial number. The net result is a situation where those users now have two of everything they owned. (If you upgraded during that time, log into our web store and check your customer record: you’ll probably see your old serial numbers sitting there, still in version 4.5.1 or earlier.)

Further complicating any sense of what’s really going on are the untold numbers of copies sold through third-party distributors. We really have no idea about most of those users unless they contact us.

And then there are the developers. Those brave souls who, once upon a time, tried to make a living by writing and selling Helix-based solutions. For various reasons, many developers chose to register their customers licenses in their own names, choosing to manage the relationship between the end user and their software without any interference from “big brother” at Odesta, Helix Technologies, The Chip Merchant, or even QSA ToolWorks. They have dozens of unique licenses, in use all over the world, while they act as the gateway to the end user.

And then there are the developers who paid for the right to distribute the Helix RunTime Engine free of charge. And yes, we’ve discovered that there are are few who own just one or two licenses that were “creatively distributed” to many locations. In spite of these creative attempts to undermine legitamacy, we inevitably learn about these end users when they are abandoned and contact us for support.

So when we’re asked “How many Helix users are there?” our answer is honestly: we don’t know.

It has taken us a lot of effort to piece this puzzle together from the small clues we inherited, and every day we learn a little more. Every now and then (more often than you’d imagine) another Helix user — one we thought was lost forever or we didn’t even know existed — comes out of the woodwork to inquire as to their eligibility for an upgrade. In fact, a Helix Express 3.5 user from our MIA page contacted us while we were writing this update bearing news of others still lurking and working out there in old versions of Helix. Like the charcters in a sci-fi disaster movie, they thought they were the only survivors. Now they’ve re-established contact with the world and are ready to catch up on what they missed. Welcome back.

Suffice it to say that as to the total number of licenses of what is now called Helix RADE sold directly, we’ve been able to accurately attribute about half of those licenses to their actual users. When you take away the relative handful who have upgraded to Helix RADE 6.0 you still have a fairly substantial number of licenses that may or may not actually be in use.

Out of all of the Helix RADE licenses that are in 5.3 or earlier, we calculate that only about 20% of those are from the 4.5.3 to 5.3.2 era. That leaves 80% back in 4.5.1 or earlier. Clearly, sadly, many have been lost. Helix has been around for over 20 years now, and some users have retired or for one reason or another no longer use Helix. Surely some must have thought Helix had gone away for good by now and jumped ship. Helix hasn’t been in a position to aggressively pursue new users for over 10 years now, but even with the inevitable attrition, there’s still a very vital and passionate user base that has been supporting the work that’s been going on these past four years.

Yet there’s that huge group that isn’t supporting us. Who are they? Here are a few things we’ve discovered about them in the past few years…

  1. The person who wrote their Helix collection is no longer around. The letterhead in their Helix program now shows the address where their office used to be and they are thinking of switching to FileMaker because they don’t know how to change it and can’t find anyone who can.
  2. They actively use Helix, and they intend on upgrading to a new version of Helix, but not until it runs in macOS. The idea of buying an upgrade now, and then being “soaked” for another upgrade in a few months annoys them.
  3. They actually own a newer version of Helix than the one they are using. They postponed installing it for so long that they forgot they bought it. As a result, they think the upgrade cost is higher than it actually is.
  4. They used to use Helix, but their company migrated to Windows and Helix use is now restricted to small projects where Helix does tasks Access simply can’t do. They never would have left Helix at all, had there been a Helix for Windows. Helix doesn’t have a prominent place in the current corporate thinking, but now Apple’s new Intel-based machines run macOS and Windows XP at full speed, and the company is reinvestigating the Mac platform.

Regardless of which of those groups you are in, reviewing all of our sales data turns up one indisputable fact: those of you who use only Helix RADE have been our most reluctant supporters. As a group, you just aren’t upgrading. Maybe you are part of that 20%, or you’re one of the remaining 80% who we’ve actually talked to, or you’re part of that other very large group of “the unknown” who uses Helix with “no visible means of support” and now you’ve found us and your eyes are sore from reading the previous 44 editions of The Latest Word on this web site. If you are in one of those groups, then you are probably sick and tired of hearing about Helix Server. You want a macOS native Helix RADE, and you want it now. And maybe you’re more than a little bit worried about the future of your Helix collections as each day goes by with no news for you. And now, with the announcement of the Mac Pro towers, you can’t even buy a new Mac that runs the Classic environment. What are you to do?

The windup…

When we began the difficult job — nearly four years ago! — of updating the Helix code base to enable it to run in macOS and on other platforms, we knew it was going to be a long and difficult process. It was work that had been passed over by previous owners because it was invisible to the end user and therefore thankless and, ultimately, deemed unprofitable. In the time we’ve been in charge, three Helix products (Helix Server, Helix Utility, Update Collection) have become native macOS applications, and one totally new macOS native product (Helix Maintenance Manager) has been produced.

For those of you who are RADE only users, we know that the big Helix Server upgrade of December 2005 left you out in the cold… which brings us to our discussion of the most overlooked of the Helix products.

Once upon a time it was called RunTime Helix. Then Helix RunTime. Then Helix RunTime Engine. And finally: Helix Engine. Historically, it has served four primary functions.

  1. The first is as a way of demonstrating how Helix worked in User (Custom) Mode; people who use Helix to write vertical applications (such as Gregg Sanderson’s Market Master) use the Helix Engine to send out demo copies of their programs.
  2. The second use is for developers who purchased the right to distribute the Engine with their applications.
  3. The third is as a way of allowing someone to use a single-user Helix collection for daily use without incurring the expense of purchasing the full RADE program. Helix Engine has historically been sold for significantly less than Helix RADE, so if a user simply needs to enter and retrieve data from a collection you designed, why saddle them with the extra expense (and complexity) of RADE?
  4. And finally, you can distribute a collection along with Helix Engine, confident that the user can’t get into Design (Full) Mode. (Unless they buy their own copy of RADE, that is!)

Now, in an combination/extension of the second and third reasons listed, the Helix Engine is going to allow Helix RADE owners to run their collections natively in macOS before we finish the macOS native Helix RADE. Yes, if you really need to work in Design (Full) Mode, this news is not going to make much of a dent in your depression. But if you spend the majority of your time in User (Custom) Mode, this will allow you to move up to macOS, even to buy one of those cool new Intel-based Macs.

… and the pitch

We are going to ship the macOS native Helix Engine just as soon as it is proven to run reliably. It may not be “feature complete” and it may have a list of caveats attached to it, but for 90% of you it will do everything you need it to. We’re going to ship it months before we ship a macOS native Helix RADE. (See our last two editions of The Latest Word for the whys and wherefores of that.) We don’t know when that release date is yet, but we are making progress and our course is clear: Helix Engine will be the next product out the door.

You know the drill: we still need your help. But before we get to that, let’s be perfectly clear about one thing: we are not “out of money.” There is no danger of our closing up shop. We aren’t sitting on our hands, waiting for a sale so we can let the engineers work another day. Do not allow the thought that “you’ll never see a macOS native Helix RADE” enter your mind for a moment.

However, our cash reserves are hardly in the “comfortable” category. Though development is moving forward at a steady pace, nearly at full speed, sales and support work under very tight budgets. We have been — and continue to be — very careful money managers (even tightwads!). Not having the luxury of an enormous or very confident user base, Helix lives, essentially, from release to release, as some families live from paycheck to paycheck.

That’s why we are appealing to you — RADE users — now. This is your time. Buy your Helix RADE 6.0 upgrade today. Don’t wait any longer. If you’re using an older version of RADE, whether on an old Mac or in Classic mode under macOS, this one is better, more compatible. Buying your upgrade now will help us get the macOS native Engine and RADE done sooner.

And in case you missed it before, here’s our promise: every customer who has upgraded to Helix RADE 6.0 will get a free copy of Helix Engine macOS to use ASAP. When that happens, you single user Helix customers will finally be able to use your collections in macOS. There will be no hidden costs or surprises — if you help us get there by upgrading before that day. Helix Engine is the little engine that can make it all happen. We just need you to step up and give it a push.

P.S. to the rest of you…

Those of you who have already upgraded to Helix 6.0 may be wondering if there is anything you can do to help. If you have money to invest in Helix’s future, please consider purchasing blocks of USUs. USUs can be redeemed for full credit towards future purchases at any time, and they are a tangible asset. Buying USUs now provides the financial backing that gives us breathing room so we don’t start tightening the development budget prematurely.

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