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Don’t let your love of Helix keep you from going to macOS

Debunking old myths in the new Helix era

21 September 2005--Regardless of the dateline that ultimately appears on this message, it was first drafted on the 20th of July. That morning, it occurred to me that it was the anniversary of the Moon landing, the technological achievement of my generation. To make sure my memory wasn’t fading, I went to the web and did a Google search on “Moon landing.”

The first page of results was littered with links to pages that dispute whether or not the darned thing ever happened at all. Here we are, 36 years since man first set foot on the Moon. We’ve witnessed hundreds of subsequent astronomical events: space shuttles, space stations, deep space telescopes, SETI. Probes to Mars, Saturn and beyond, all sending back incredibly detailed photographs. And yet there are still those among us who refuse to believe that we really did send men to the Moon back in 1969.

We live in an age of information, where each of us has access to more data than we can possibly absorb. We also live in an age of mistrust, where some people see a dark cloud around every silver lining. Finally, we live in an age of pride, where people are slow to admit mistakes and reluctant to admit that what they believe might not be 100% true. (Was there ever an age that didn’t qualify on this last count?)

Put all of that together and you can end up with a problem: people get bits of knowledge fixed in their minds and never let them go, no matter how obsolete that knowledge becomes. The result is people — well-intentioned but behind-the-times people — working with incomplete or inaccurate knowledge. Holding onto obsolete knowledge is bad in itself, but when that information is passed along, whether as advice via a discussion list (i.e., the Helix List) or as code written into a new Helix collection, it becomes what we here at QSA like to call... misinformation (spoken in baritone voice, heavy on the reverb).

A Short History of the (Helix) Universe

In the early 1990s, when Helix and the Mac were in their heyday, many smart people became Helix users. Some became professional developers and worked at making a living writing Helix applications (both Matt and I qualify for this dubious honor). But as the Mac’s fortunes waned, Helix opportunities declined and we all had to scramble to find other ways to make a living. Some developers gave up altogether, leaving their beautiful Helix work frozen in a time capsule labeled “buried: circa 1992.”

As time went on, knowledge about Helix ossified: it got stale and ceased to continue developing, even though Helix (despite the rumors) wasn’t dead and was in fact creeping along, making incremental gains. But old dogs rarely learn new tricks and those improvements were mostly lost in manual addenda, release notes and verbal lore passed on by Steve Keller, the “Last Great Repository of Tech Knowledge” from the Odesta/Helix Technologies days.

And although there hasn’t been a big feature added to Helix since 2000, an awful lot of little things have changed since then. As the first management team comprised of genuine Helix users, we’ve taken the opportunity presented to us to address those little things that nagged at all of us over the years. That nifty trick for working around an obscure bug? The bug’s been fixed! That ‘incomplete feature’ that came up just short? We finished it off! But when that type of change happens, collected nuggets of wisdom are rendered obsolete. And if you aren’t diligent to refresh your thinking with each new release, your knowledge can become out-of-date, and you may become a dispenser of... misinformation (there’s that voice again...).

So whether you are a professional developer, a business owner who loves what Helix enables you to do, or an enthusiast who uses Helix for the pure joy of it, you owe it to yourself (and others) to challenge your own thinking about Helix. Take some time and revisit your old creations armed with your new knowledge. You may find that your Helix users' complaints about Helix not being able to do x have been addressed, and a few click and drags are all that separate you from a more productive environment.

The Never Ending Battle for Truth…

Matt and I have been the “face of Helix” for a little over three years now, and in that time, we’ve noticed that when it comes to misinformation, there are recurring themes; areas in Helix that people do not understand, or simply aren’t aware of. Usually it is because something they learned was true at one point in time and they never updated their “knowledgebase.”

We have encountered recurring misconceptions about Helix, leading us to develop our own List of Helix Myths. In this and in upcoming articles, we’ll present and debunk a selection of the most common of these we encounter as we talk to our customers. So be prepared to throw out that long-held wisdom that is embedded in your thinking and update knowledge with the current state of the Helix art.

In doing so, you might even find yourself getting excited about the prospect of updating your old collections to fix those things that have always bugged you or that you thought couldn’t be done with Helix. If you are a consultant or you manage a Client/Server network, take a poll of your users and find out what bothers them most about the collections they use. You can expand your Helix knowhow and eliminate the main complaints about your work: a win-win scenario.

Resistance to Change Runs Deep (or “Who Moved My Keys?”)

When I first learned how to use Helix, back in the Stone Age, I was quite tentative at first, using the mouse to do everything. In 1985, on the original Mac, and to some extent on the Lisa before that, the keyboard was almost an afterthought. The mouse was huge. The mouse was everything. It was what made the Macintosh experience so new and exciting. Point, click and drag. Fun at first. Tiresome at last.

The pull-down menus contained some symbols, symbols I later learned were called “command-key equivalents” that provided short-cuts for my mouse tracks. A Helix 6 Menu It took me a while, but I eventually became enamored of those command-key equivalents and found my mouse usage slipping. [Those who have used Helix 5.1 or later know that we have now made it even more — shall we say — optional, to use a mouse.]

I was reminded of that experience when I spoke with a user recently who said he had purchased Helix 5.1 but “it didn’t work” so he went back to 4.5.5. Upon further investigation, I discovered that what “didn’t work” were many of the command-key equivalents to which this user had become so accustomed over years of use.

It’s important to note that a “command-key equivalent” implies that the command is in a menu somewhere. If the shortcut you used to use doesn’t work, it would seem logical to look in the menu to see if it has changed before picking up the phone to call for help or worse, before abandoning Helix because of it.

A person with a problem like this who doesn’t call the company has in all likelihood learned, as far too many Helix users have over the years, not to expect any help, or for help to be far too difficult to get. It is not easy to unlearn years of neglect. We are working hard to create a different support structure for Helix. It is all we can do.

In the fall of 2002, we ran a survey on this web site in which we asked the question, “If you could assign command keys to your favorite Helix menu commands, what would they be?” The response was overwhelming and, for most things, decisive. We took our users' advice and incorporated those commands into our menus, knowing full well that we would be forcing many people into a process of re-education.

Can Helix survive a round of this? Anybody remember when Command-Q no longer meant Find First? Anybody still wishing we had left it that way? So, yes, we’ve made some changes that touch the roots of the Helix experience, but we figured it was as good a time as any to disturb the calm of the Helix pond.

Still, not everyone “read the memo.” We see a fair cross-section of collections here in the course of doing collection repair, chasing bugs, and helping users work through design issues and, quite frankly, we are sometimes shocked at how dated they look. Collections in use in 2005 should not have “Command-Q” as the command-key equivalent of Find First. Open Query templates shouldn’t be the same as data entry templates. Chicago should not be the dominant font.

What we are saying is this: every once in a while, whether or not you think you need to, you should take a look at the rich tapestry of tools at your disposal. There are so many Helix collections that were brought to a stage where they “did the job” and, as noted before on this site… people use what works. The problem is that if you don’t take the time to learn the new tricks a Helix update provides, (or learn them, but never incorporate them into your collection design) your collections become harder to use as they become less and less consistent with current design expectations.

Anyhow, in seeing these collections and having these conversations, we’ve discovered that there are a handful of common misconceptions about Helix. Old knowledge that hasn’t been updated to square with what Helix 5 (and soon Helix 6) have to offer. So we’ve worked up this List of Helix Myths and over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll be bringing them out here and knocking them down. And although this installment is already long enough, we can’t wait another day before knocking the first two myths off their pedestals.

Myth 1: Helix Won’t Run on New Macs With macOS

As I was wrapping up the aforementioned conversation with one of our customers, I asked whether they had any macOS machines in their place. He said that they did, in fact, have lots of them. They also have a Helix Server with 8 Clients, but he said it wasn’t being used. Instead, they had a couple of old machines that ran OS 9.x and they were running copies of their database on those machines because they didn’t think Helix could run in Classic.

I thought my head was going to explode. It’s so hard, with such limited resources, to get the truth out, but I thought we’d covered this one multiple times and in multiple ways. I don’t know any other way to say it, but let me try it this way: we have been using Helix on macOS machines ever since 10.2 (Jaguar) made macOS stable enough to use on an everyday machine. Helix RADE 5.3.2 works beautifully under Tiger. So does Helix Client. And Helix Engine. And the utilities. It’s just that you should not run a 5.3.2 or earlier version Server on a machine that is running macOS. For all the rest, the Classic environment works great. The improvements in 10.4 (Tiger) make the experience even smoother.

Don’t let Helix keep you from the joys of macOS. Upgrade to Tiger. Leave your OS 9 System Folder in place (or install one using the “Classic” CD Apple ships with every new Mac) and Helix will run fine. It behaves properly so that the fact that you’re running in Classic just means that there’s another application running in your macOS machine. You can enjoy all the benefits of macOS while still running Helix.

Myth 2: Helix’s TCP/IP Doesn’t Work

Actually, this one has a level of truth to it: the old TCP/IP didn’t work very well. But that old truth has been obsolete since the release of Helix 5.3 in 2004. If the thought of using Helix with TCP/IP to allow remote users to access your database still sounds like a fantasy to you, you owe it to yourself to read our revised TCP/IP FAQ page.

Sadly, many Helix users don’t seem to be aware that there is a new TCP/IP. They tried the 5.0–5.2 version with all of its limitations—public IP addresses required on both ends, no firewall support, random port usage, and more—and they decided either to stay in 4.5.5 or continue using Helix in AppleTalk, limiting their Server’s reach to their local office. A few hearty souls did the hard work required to use the old TCP/IP, and did it with a fair amount of success. But they were the exceptions to the rule.

When Matt and I first “righted the ship” and started building up a fund for improving Helix, we identified the most egregious parts of the experience and then sought out the “best and brightest” to help us fix them. We immediately scheduled the TCP/IP code for overhaul, and when we found out that the old code wasn’t even macOS compatible, the decision to scrap it and rewrite from scratch was made.

Back then we had to shroud a lot of what we were doing in secrecy, and maybe that is why some folks didn’t pick up on what has happened. But it can now be told that when we found Atimi we knew we had the right people to fix the TCP/IP problems once and for all. And then we had the extreme fortune to have access to Steve Keyser, the architect of the original Helix Client/Server protocol, who was able to provide “deep background” and help us deliver a top-notch upgrade to the original implementation.

The new code was written for the macOS upgrade, but because the old code was so limiting, we chose to get the “fix” into our customers' hands as quickly as possible. So we released it as Helix 5.3, and it’s gone on to work better than we could have hoped.

We recently spoke with a customer who was quoted a price of $25,000 to rebuild his Helix application in SQL in order to provide remote access. An upgrade of less than a thousand dollars would have given him this same capability using Helix, but he had rejected that solution, thinking it wouldn’t work. Now he knows. People like cost-effective. This one was a no-brainer.

So remember: Helix works with TCP/IP. It just plain works. The problems you may have experienced or heard about have been fixed. It’s working right now for hundreds of businesses. It is working right now as the center of our beta testing program, carried on in a format a little like our weekly HelixChat, which was originally devised as a way to shake the bugs out of the new TCP/IP code and has since then turned into a Friday afternoon institution, where dozens of Helix customers regularly gather to chat about Helix and learn about the latest progress we’ve made in the march to macOS.

Two Down, Many More To Go

Although we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg, that should be enough to shake a few misconceptions loose from your thinking. (For those of you who already knew the facts behind those two myths, put yourself in the upper percentile of knowledgable Helix users!)

Stay tuned for our next edition of The Latest Word, where we’ll tackle a few more myths.

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