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0.00018461538% and musings on the nature of Helix martyrdom

2002.08.08--Thanks to a virtual deluge of email from Helix users around this little ball we travel on, we were, in the past two weeks, nearly forced to go back on our promise of keeping the lines of information open (on the web site at least!).

Within days of our July 15th posting, our email in-boxes had nearly 1,000 items inside. After brushing away the spam and other unrelated correspondence, there were still several hundred Helix-related things in there.

You’re going to have to take our word for it, but we’ve responded to nearly every one. It’s a pretty poor excuse for nothing new on the web page these past two weeks, but it will have to do for now. We have been communicating, and during this time, we’ve tried to focus on who is using Helix and how to reach more of them.

Two recent contacts belie the extreme boundaries of the Helix life.

One came from outside Tacoma, WA, saying, "I work for a small company that must move from Mac to PCs using Access. Is there a product that converts from one to the other? If not, is there a company that can provide this service?"

This was a completely dispassionate request. The person had no feeling about Helix one way or the other. At the moment, their use of Helix is a temporary annoyance, one that will be history once they liberate their data from the data "dungeon" where it now resides.

All they want is a way out.

Another contact came from a company in New York City that’s been using Helix since around 1985. They’ve been in business in parts of three centuries, opening in the late 1800’s and continuing today, serving the motion picture industry.

Recently, "the old man" (as they say) passed away. He was the son of the original owner and he came to work every day until he was 97. His younger brother, at 96 now, also still comes in every day. He’s the "new old man."

The next generation has taken over most of the business and has seen fit to expand the computer’s role in their work. Every day their Helix system takes care of more of their former labors. Even tasks that were so ingrained in paper that they could "never" be done by computer are now represented by menu selections and on-screen buttons.

Late last week, they had a discussion about the future of Helix. The "new old man" overheard most of it and cut right to the chase.

"Excuse me," he asked. "Does any of this mean our computer is going to stop working?"

Everyone shrugged. "No, of course not" came the reply.

"OK, then," he said. "Neither should any of you. Let’s get back to work."

No one lives forever, and eventually, even this hearty soul will move on to a place where he need never be concerned with the fate of Helix. But sooner or later, his sons and daughters will.

It is incumbent upon his children, and everyone else out there who uses Helix, to have a way out. There’s no immediate need to abandon ship, but that doesn’t mean there won’t ever be. Working with a product like Helix is simply not for the faint of heart. It has never been. Its history is full of compelling reasons to switch platforms.

Nonetheless, this tenuous species clings to life. We’d recently discovered, through a very unsophisticated form of data mining, that the Helix "community" is much larger than we’d suspected, and that it can presently be characterized as living in three concentric circles.

The innermost and smallest group are those who have ventured furthest from safety and upgraded to the 5.0.2 "experience."

The next group surrounding them is quite a bit larger, perhaps as much as eight times larger. This group has ventured out far enough to be using 4.5.5. It was risky, but it was free.

But lurking out there silently is a third and much larger group than we’d ever expected, people using some version of Helix Express. We could easily have written them off if it weren’t for the fact that we keep hearing from so many of them. Some statisticians would have to refer to the numbers in this group as a "fudge factor," since while we know how many there are, we don’t know much about them beyond their last real known Helix activity circa 1997, unless, of course, they contact us, or update their profiles on line. Many of them have done this, despite not upgrading their Helix licenses.

It’s impossible to guess what lies beyond that group. Again, we all know that there were once about 31,786 owners of Helix. Many have certainly fallen off the radar. We can only hope that anyone from before 1992 who was going to move forward is a member of one of the other three circles.

Around 375 people from across all three groups belong to a fringe group calling itself "The Helix List." Every member of that group is a staunch supporter of Helix. Since we are actual acquaintances of many of the people who populate this group, and since they are the most vocal members of the fabled "Helix Community," and since we pay careful attention to what is said in this group, we must also count ourselves among their numbers.

But for a long time, the members of the Helix List have lived proverbial lives of quiet desperation, partially because we have lived with the silence of management, but also because we lived so unaware of the larger, yet still seemingly insignificant community of Helix users.

When you take our best guesstimate of who is using Helix and compare it to the approximate population of the world, you get that percentage at the top of the page. A little more than a thousandth of one percent of humanity, sitting at their personal computers, using Helix. Kind of makes you feel small, does it not?

A number like this could just as easily describe an emerging species as one on its way to extinction. If you were powerful enough to reach all these people, would you encourage them to keep going, or warn them to run for their lives? Do they stand and continue to provide an alternative to a world gone mad from Windows, and keep alive the hope that one day, in the not too distant future, they might actually be able to play in the big sandbox with the other kids? Or do they cave in?

I’ve often said that the Helix faithful are like an army of volunteers who would set themselves on fire to save Helix. Two extreme visions of army life were expressed in the movies "Full Metal Jacket" and "Stripes."

In each of these movies, and probably in countless other movies about army life, there’s a scene where boot camp finally ends and the soldiers are given their marching orders.

I can just see the scene in the Helix version, where the drill sergeant is handing out the assignments. "Strange, Sanderson, Darby and Hathcoat, you guys are lucky. You’re going to FileMaker on the Mac. McGruter, Neidermayer, Numeroff, Caine and Kegan, sorry guys. It looks like you’ll be going to Access on the PC."

While I can hardly speak to the character of any Helix user, I can easily declare anyone who is reading this page out of anything beyond idle curiosity or sheer boredom to be a potential "Helix martyr."

Unlike other martyrs, Helix martyrs don’t die. Things around them die. Their businesses. Their credibilities. Their marriages and other relationships. Their hopes.

Our martyrdom entails being forced to live in a world where people all use Access or FileMaker or any number of faceless database engines when in reality, all we really wanted was to make something we could use and depend upon, like a stapler, a telephone or a copy machine.

What’s ultimately so unsettling about the much-bemoaned apparent "failure" of Helix is its great promise. That and the fear that if we abandon ship and devote ourselves to such a degree to something else, that it too could succumb to the mediocrity of the Windows world.

That’s why you need a way out. Once you have it, you can continue on what is clearly, to the untrained eye, as sure a path to software martyrdom as one can travel, and jump off the minute it gets too scary.

The recent RealNetworks deal with Helix Technologies has brought the company an influx of capital it desperately needed. The Chip Merchant’s business model has always been and continues to be to keep itself viable enough to throw off development money for Helix. While we can’t provide a timetable yet, we can say that things are being to crank back up. If you’re coming along for the ride, fasten your seat belts.

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