Everything Else

The Last Word

30 August 2022 — There are some people who simply dread getting old. No matter how old they get, their sense of vanity causes them to answer “Thirty-nine” when asked for their age.

Helix actually is thirty-nine; rapidly approaching forty. But not being sentient, Helix has no such vanity issues. It just marches on to the future, leaving its guardians to speak on its behalf.

And today, that’s what we’re going to talk about.

The one constant in Helix history has been...

...the lack of great marketing. Once upon a time there was an adage that held that if you built a better mousetrap, the world would beat a path to your door.

But in the software business, that has not always been the case, because in the short history of software development, there is also a subordinate clause that posits that no one will ever beat a path to anywhere unless and until they are sure that the thing they need is there and there, in the middle of that phrase is the crux of why it is so hard to sell software: people don’t always know what they need.

Of all the accolades and criticisms garnered by Helix in its nearly 40 years of existence, ask any devoted Helix designer or passionate devotee what was the worst thing about the management of Helix and they’d tell you about which Helix print ad they hated the most.

Why such intense emotion over something like that? Simple: they wanted to see Helix succeed and felt that the marketing was doing just the opposite. If anything was clear, it was that the basic marketing question was not being addressed: who is the Helix customer?

And not too subtly, the problem wasn't only that marketers couldn't figure out what the best message was, but where to even place their advertising because no one really understood where people who needed something they did not know they needed should look to find it.

Today, of course, all the media anyone could possibly need to see sits in a little device that almost every living being holds in the palm of their hands. So the question of where to look is a moot one. Which brings us back to the question of what the message should say.

One last brief trip through the past

So what is better, you might ask? Bad marketing or none at all? Well, for what it's worth, the reality of Helix marketing for the past 20 years has been that apart from this website and this column, the answer was none at all.

The reason was simple: all available resources had to be applied to software development. Helix was a small ship in a harbor full of aircraft carriers and destroyers with large crews and lots of money. While we may have lacked some things that they had, we always had a fundamentally better product. And we made it a priority to keep Helix users informed about exactly what was going on, warts and all.

As has been noted before in this webspace, we never wanted this job. In 2002, when we took over the day-to-day management of Helix, we thought we were doing this job only temporarily, until certain things got cleared up.

When it became clear that those things would never clear up, we undertook the job of keeping Helix going. And when we discovered how relatively easy that task was, we were emboldened and reached out to the people who we most trusted and revered in our little universe and asked them to help us get Helix to macOS, or as it was called back then, OS X.

The entire process was funded by upgrades and some occasional cash infusions from people trying to help us. And one trick we played until it became too difficult to do, was to offer lots of incentives for users to keep current, like getting the next update for free if you paid for the latest offering.

That process bore its first fruit in December 2005, three short years later. And the rest is history.

The search for committed souls begins

Nearly every step we took since our journey together began could be characterized as finding ways to keep Helix functioning as Apple’s hardware and operating system software became more modern and more complex.

Each of these advances always brought us to the same fork in the road: make the old code work under the new rules, or trash the whole thing and start fresh.

Making the old code work always meant that however long the step would take, when it was complete, we would have something that worked the way things should have worked when that step began. The march of time and technology always continued regardless of our path, often leaving Helix behind in one way or another.

Trashing the whole thing and starting over was always the more daunting option because of how long it would take, but at least we would be in a much better place when we finished.

When Apple decided at long last to abandon the Intel processor, our decision was clear: it was time to start over, to rethink Helix for the future. We began that work almost two years ago, and great progress has already been made. But we knew we had to find a source of funding to shorten the distance to the finish line. And that brings us back to marketing.

We could never imagine, and still cannot, why anyone would spend the amount of money necessary to make this happen without at least intending to then market the Helix concept to a new generation of users. Intention, however, is, of course, never enough. Doing that job would require more money, perhaps as much or more than it would cost just to rewrite the code. So our job became finding such committed souls and turning control over to them. Unless and until we were sure we had found the right people, we would stay at the helm for as long as we could.

Safe Harbor at last

Today, it is with great pride and pleasure that we announce that the right people have at last been found and the committment we sought is there. After months of seemingly endless negotiation (and near total radio silence), this edition of The Latest Word marks the completion of our part of the journey. The new company, Big Giant Donut (a.k.a. BGD), is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is headed by longtime Helix user Dana Barnard — a name many of you may recognize from the Helix discussion list.

BGD will spend an appropriate amount of money to continue and expand upon the work we have been doing. They are hopeful that this work will be completed within 18-24 months.

During that period, existing users will be supported and when the development is complete, there will be a migration path that will assure that existing Helix collections will work in the new environment.

When all is said and done, the most critical aspect of our decision to make this move was our belief that BGD will also do whatever is necessary to get people and companies to the door where the new and better mousetrap will live. We encourage anyone who's curious to visit BGD’s website.

QSA ToolWorks will remain in operation for a short time to assist in the transition to Helix’s new management team.

The Recovery Team Revealed

For most Helix users, during these past 20 years, your ticket to this page has come in an email from a group headed by Gil Numeroff and Matt Strange called “The Helix Recovery Team.”

From Helix’s beginning under Odesta Corporation in Northbrook, IL, the people at the heart of Helix were known as the “keepers of the flame.” Daniel Cheifetz, Julie Lyon Morrison Cheifetz, the late Jonathan Schneier and the late David Harmon carried the candle until they were no longer able to do so. When the Helix Recovery Team finally took over from the second of the two subsequent owners, we worked very diligently to rekindle that flame.

On a personal note, the members of the Team want to assure you that the flame will continue to burn brightly, and they leave their berths on the Recovery ship with their heads held high:

Larry Atkin has been at the helm of Helix development since it began, back in the Odesta days. He is a man of few words, but when he speaks them, they always take us in exciting and unexpected directions. His work has always been done while the rest of us sleep and, we are very happy to report, will continue to be done in that dark and inspiring place.

Steve Keyser made Helix communicate over a network nearly 40 years ago, and has continued to assure the smooth transitions that brought Helix to the internet and will soon bring it both to the new Macs as well as any device that can communicate over the internet. Steve wants you to know that he “always gave his best as a contributor to the Helix Recovery Team”.

While Matt Strange and Gil Numeroff have often been at loggerheads over issues both significant and trivial to the ultimate success of Helix, in their 20 years together they learned how to turn those differences into productive dialog and brought a much-needed end-user perspective to the management of Helix development.

Together Gil and Matt have managed to communicate their intentions to users, provide support and keep development focused, presiding over very productive team meetings every week, almost without exception, for 20 years. While wearing the multiple hats of sales, communication, support, product development, documentation and web site maintenance has at times been somewhat frantic, being in the position to help people succeed with Helix has been extremely gratifying for them both.

When Matt took over technical support back in the Helix 4.5.x days, the majority of his time was spent doing collection repairs. “When we found ourselves in the position of being able to influence the code,” says Matt, “we made it a priority to identify and fix as many ‘pitfalls’ as we could so as to make Helix more reliable, and diminish the need for collection repair services. And we have accomplished that, even beyond my wildest hopes.”

“Speaking of support, my predecessor Steve Keller told me that the typical ‘burn out’ rate for support personnel was something like 3–4 years,” says Matt. “I managed to ‘survive’ in that space for over 20 years, but I can testify that the strain of continually dealing with customer problems does take its toll, and I’m certain that I sometimes left customers frustrated and angry at ‘that miserable so-and-so in tech support.’ And so, to any and all who were irritated, offended, or otherwise made to feel ill-at-ease in our interactions, I offer my sincere apology.”

As for Gil, his parting shot is that he is very glad to have had the chance both to shape and tell the Helix story these 20 years. “I am every bit as grateful for the positive responses garnered by our very long posts as I have been mortified by those who simply found them too long and contrived,” Gil says, adding that he hopes the level of communication he and Matt fostered among Helix users will continue into the future.

Finally, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Carl Morfino of Quality Casting, a longtime Helix user whose business continues to depend on Helix, for stepping in at the darkest moment in Helix history and rescuing it from the Southern California Bankruptcy Court system, enabling us to continue supporting its user base, and bringing Helix from Classic to macOS. Content to provide the net for our ongoing high-wire act, Carl says, "Gil, Matt, Larry and Steve are the heroes that kept Helix going. I would be honored just to have my name included. Thanks for everything!”

And speaking of honor, one last time, we would like to thank all of you for your undying support of our efforts these past twenty years. It has been both a pleasure and an honor to work with such devoted people and we hope you will shower that spirit on the new ownership, standing by them as you stood by us. This flame burns on!

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