Everything Else

Back to the Future

21 October 2015 —Today, as many movie fans know, is “Back to the Future Day.” It is the day in the second movie of the series where Doc, Marty McFly and Jennifer travel to the future. And one of the seemingly unlikely events that occur on this day in the future is that the Chicago Cubs are in the World Series.

Even if fact is truly stranger than fiction, that very possibility exists today, a day any Helix user can figure to be 173 days since they have heard anything definitive about the state of Helix from those of us who promised more than a decade ago to keep them informed, no matter the cost.

As always, a great deal has happened between communiquŽs, and we will not let another day pass before bringing you all up to speed. But first, fittingly (as in the movies), we ask you to suspend disbelief for a moment, as we frame our situation in the fable of the Can Opener, the Shark and the Cloud.

The Can Opener

On a crisp fall day in a very possible future, an elementary-school class will take a field trip to a science museum. During their tour, they will come into a room full of labor-saving devices, things created by people to make life easier. The children will be fascinated by the well-preserved variety of curiosities, each having one thing in common with all the others: the fact that no one uses them anymore.

One of them is a very unusual device with a razor-like wheel, a magnet, two handles and a rotating knob. “Can anyone tell me what this was?” the teacher will ask, admonishing his students not to look up the answer. His question will be met with a roomful of vacant stares. No one will have a clue.

“It’s called a can opener,” he will read from the guide book, adding, “and it comes from a time when food still came in metal cans and the pop-top had not yet been invented.” And then he will catch himself, realizing that no child of this time could possibly understand what a ‘pop-top’ was.

They might learn that the can opener had once been a clever, well-engineered human solution to a technical problem: how to get food out of a can, which was part and parcel to the entire idea of using a can as a food storage and delivery system. After all, if no one could figure out how to open the can, it probably wouldn’t have ever been very useful for storing food. And they might also learn that from the time that someone first opened a can with an old-fashioned “church key,” the tool that opened it would morph through numerous iterations, first becoming the rotary can opener, then becoming electrified, then battery-operated and eventually coming under the control of various internet devices and apps before completely disappearing.

Like so many labor-saving devices, the can opener was an evolutionary tool. Its design and even its purpose adapted to changing needs until those needs no longer necessitated the tool’s existence. What went wrong? Actually, nothing. The can opener served its purpose and then, things, as they often do, changed.

But back here in our own time, in the first quarter of the 21st century, we still use a can opener to get inside the occasional can that doesn’t come with it’s own built-in opener. It won’t be long, of course, before there is no longer enough of an economic incentive for anyone to stock these things in brick-and-mortar stores. And eventually, even finding one on the internet will be like trying to read data from a 400K floppy disk, something once done daily and now unthinkable. And if you’re one of those unfortunate people who wrote their great American novel and saved it on one, and now finally have some time to work on it again, it may be time to trade in the old Mac Plus and head for rewrite.

The Shark

For reasons few of us truly understand, the shark has been a fixture of the news for a good part of 2015. Stories from violent shark attacks to harmless close encounters with these seemingly malevolent creatures have been given prominent media play even in the absence of any rational explanation being put forth to justify these increasing incidences.

There could be some meaningful correlation between climate change and the greater likelihood of encountering sharks in places where they have not traditionally been seen. But that increasing likelihood probably has little to do with evolution, a process so often misunderstood. Still, a persistent popular modern mythology holds that sharks move constantly because they are adapting to circumstances and thus performing some evolutionary function.

The actual reason the shark keeps moving is to stay alive. The constant motion keeps air rushing over its breathing apparatus, thus serving only to preserve the status quo. The reason we hear so much about them is that sharks are capable of unleashing terror and terror sells newspapers. But the shark will not go away any time soon. It will outlast the can opener.

The can opens, the shark bites and the cloud obscures

Like the can-opener, Helix is an evolving tool. For its entire history, it has, on one hand, adapted to changes in its operating environment, and, on the other, provided its users with the ability to adapt their work to the changing requirements of their lives and businesses.

Like the shark, Helix has to keep moving, and it provokes terror, though mostly in the hearts and minds of users who seem to live in fear of its imminent demise.

Unlike the can-opener, however, the problem that Helix solves is very much still with us. The need to store and categorize information is greater than ever and the use of databases is exploding all over the planet, and people are contacting them any way they can, be it from their desktop computers, their laptop computers, their phones, their tablets and now, even from their wristwatches.

But the very existence of Helix and other products like it is under threat of extinction from a very unlikely source: a very dangerous and deceptive shark that swims in a place that has come to be known as “the cloud.”

The world we live in today is one where we all have more “stuff” than we can possibly manage. We have no room for it in our homes, and yet because we feel unable to part with it, our pack-rat nature has given rise to an era of storage facilities to keep these things safe. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not work as well as we might hope. The elements occasionally find a way inside these places, putting our precious things in a precarious state. And while it can certainly be argued that we probably have little or no actual need for what we consign to these lockers, we can at least still reach out and touch their content.

At the same time, however, in the increasingly fragmented world of “apps,” users have become convinced, in a relatively short time, that the things they cannot touch, their memories, their photographs, their writing, the scanned images of the pages they have physically discarded, are somehow safer in a place they can never see, aptly named the cloud.

Buried in the fine print of virtually every electronic storage agreement is the mea non culpa that says that you may not hold anyone responsible for the condition of your digital stuff, even the continued ability to recover said stuff from their cloud. Sadly, yet hopefully, you can really do all of this yourself and, as you were hopefully taught, be responsible for your own stuff.

(As we write this, Cubs fans have gone from the heights of joy at having beaten the St. Louis Cardinals in the Divisional Series, to the pit of despair at having gone down 0-3 in a best-of-seven Championship Series with the New York Mets. Such is the ephemeral nature of sports and of clouds.)

The price of self-reliance

It is probably fair to say that most app users neither know nor care that they are, in effect, using a database. Nonetheless, the moment they enter their user ID, which is increasingly their email address, and their virtually useless password, the big remote database knows who they are, what features they are paying to use, as well as plenty of very personal information.

If you are using a product like Helix, and managing its storage and maintenance, consider yourself a member of an enlightened subclass. When disaster strikes and you hear of digital troves rendered useless, or worse, opened to strangers, your stuff will be safe.

But like anything worth having, that safety comes with a price.

A periodic touchstone of our communications has been to refer you, the reader, back to the posting we made on June 10, 2002, in which we made our first of three promises, billed at the time as all we could promise.

The first, which we saw as our primary mission, was to make sure you got the products and services you needed. The second was always to communicate, even when there was nothing to report. The third was never to raise expectations unnecessarily.

The first of those promises has proven to be easy to keep; the third, a little less so. But our track record regarding the second has been a bit spotty.

A dozen years or so ago, you might say that we were all — makers of Helix and users of Helix alike — stranded in a virtual desert of information about Helix, newsworthy or otherwise. At that time, providing information about Helix was like watering cacti: they don’t need much to keep growing and you simply can not provide enough water to kill them.

Not anymore. In the intervening years, an unprecedented number of words about Helix, along with pictures and even video, have poured over these pages. But when they exist mainly to explain why things always take longer than expected, that gets to be quite the ungratifying story to tell.

And when things do take a long time, we get so deep into what we’re doing that we fail in that ‘communication’ mission. No matter how long we work on Helix, we will always have the sense that a great deal of what gets done is of very little interest to anyone, and we fear it might actually be less interesting than no news at all. And that’s because so much of it is about creating the stuff that, as they say in “The Wizard of Oz,” goes on behind the curtain.

And when things behind that curtain go on as long as they have now, they push us perilously close to failing in our three-pronged mission.

The price of managing expectations

We often measure our progress against these promises, yet along the way, our mission changed without our explicitly making any new ones. We undertook to bring Helix to macOS, and with the support and dedication of the Helix faithful, this has indeed come to pass.

Along the way, we had to navigate our way through difficult straits, negotiate shifting currents and cross bridges to new territories. In very broad stroke, the new century has seen Helix resurrected from a managerial swamp, moved gradually into macOS while maintaining Classic access and now, at long last, severing that final tie to its past.

A little more than a year ago we exuberantly produced a version of Helix that worked in Mavericks and provided much needed stability. But since then, the Macintosh world moved on to Yosemite. And on September 30th, it moved on again, this time to El Capitan. At this time a year ago, we believed that putting out an exciting new version of Helix was within our sights. But a year later, we remain in dry dock, revising our blueprints and wondering how our exuberance somehow got the better of us.

173 days ago, we laid out a list of 12 new features that would debut in Helix 7.0. We knew that making all that happen would require a significant amount of infrastructure work, producing perhaps somewhat less visual excitement than significant long-term benefits for the Helix platform. But that direction was the result of a lot of careful planning and we were dedicated to making it happen.

To help assure our success, we offered a pre-purchase option for Helix 7.0 at a discounted price. Many of you responded, and for that we are grateful. But unfortunately, we didn’t raise enough directly from upgrade sales to meet our stated goal — we’re still a ways short of it — and as a result, a compromise that we really hoped to avoid had to be made. With all of the other features we promised virtually ready for beta testing, we decided not to hold all that good work hostage to the one piece that still needed much more attention: the Helix Web Client.

When we have setbacks, we always adjust our plans and schedules to maximize the use of our available resources so as not lose any valuable time. In our ‘May Day’ posting, we had also reiterated our offer to those who might want to pay for a new feature, saying that as long as the idea wouldn’t set our schedule back too far, we’d consider doing it. One very dedicated user rose to that challenge and as a result, we were able to elevate an often-requested feature to this upcoming release by virtue of the fact that the very infrastructure work we had undertaken had the unforeseen benefit of making it ‘doable’ in significantly less time than we had previously allocated to it. As a result, Helix 7.0 will provide a little more ‘visual excitement’ after all in the form of ‘rotated text’ in both label and data rectangles.

A good deal of the code required to make the Web Client a reality is already in place, but the time required to really do the job right will push the release of Helix 7.0 too far into the future, so Helix 7.0 will debut without it. There will most likely be one or two bug fix releases before the Web Client does finally debut, but it will be part of Helix 7 and rest assured there will be no side projects, no infrastructure revisions, nothing to distract us from that goal.

As long as Helix runs, it needs your help

Helix was born at the dawn of the age of personal computing. Microcomputers such as the Commodore 64, the IBM PC and the Apple II were tools that few at the time could have imagined would ever amount to anything more than ways to do word processing, spreadsheets or play games at home. Yet within a decade, they were in the process of decimating the market for so called mid-range machines made by such companies as Digital Equipment. While many VAX and similar machines are still in use, their manufacturing had largely ceased by the turn of the 21st century.

When Helix first appeared, the decision to use it was often motivated by the lack of application software targeted to specific industries. Early computer adopters attempted to run their businesses with fragmented combinations of word processors, spreadsheets and accounting programs. The more daring among them either built or contracted to build applications specifically tailored to their needs that worked in an integrated fashion, obviating the need to manually move data between applications.

Two threads were woven simultaneously through the fabric of computing: one was to build it yourself, the other was to adapt to someone else’s idea of what would be best for your needs. That weaving is still in progress, and although there are many more canned applications and web-based solutions today than ever before, the custom-designed, self-controlled option is still viable, particularly when the ‘service contract’ for those business-class cloud services run into the thousands of dollars per year.

Thermometer Drive Period is Over

Like the can opener, why build it if you can buy it? But like the shark, can we really afford to place the form and the sanctity of our information at the mercy of someone else’s design?

While computer companies still “call the tune” in the big computer dance, it is the quality and viability of machines and software suited to particular purposes that drive upgrade decisions on the part of users. The old catchphrase “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” guides the decision to upgrade more surely than the availability of most new features and capabilities. The inevitable disruptions that accompany the upgrade process create more pain than passion. When the machines begin to fail, as they all eventually do, users bring themselves up to speed on what is truly new and consider their futures. While all software companies provide economic incentives to be current, the inability to locate replacement hardware remains a primary driver of upgrades.

Helix 7.0 stands very close to the beginning of beta testing. As such, it will soon be in the hands of real users who will quickly tell us whether or not it is seaworthy. If it is, the evolutionary process will continue.

At the time of this writing, we still haven’t met our original goal to fund finishing the development, testing and release of Helix 7.0 (represented by the unidentified hash mark on the thermometer at right). And as should be clear from the foregoing, the amount of additional time it has already taken us to get to where we are has necessitated the recalibration of that number. The sooner we get there, the less time we will spend spinning our wheels. As long as Helix runs, it will always be in the process of being created. It will always need the support, both financial and visionary, of its users, so it can always remain clearly the best option for those who refuse to be scared by the sharks or lost in the clouds.

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