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Announcing Learning AppleScript with Helix and the Helix RADE Readiness Kit

December 31, 2010 — In the December 31, 2009 edition of The Latest Word, we announced that 2010 would be the year that Helix RADE — code named Europa — makes its debut as an OS X native application. The code name was a tip of the hat to the movie 2010.

Now it seems like we blinked our eyes and before we knew what hit us, we have precious little to show for ourselves as we stare right into the mouth of 2011.

We are sad to report today that the first release of OS X RADE is not going to make it into your hands as 2010 draws to a close. That is going to have to wait until sometime in early 2011. However, we made considerable progress toward that goal in 2010.

Why the delay? The need for speed. On November 30th of 2009, we released version 6.1.5 of Helix Server, Client, and Engine. For a while we turned our full attention back to Helix RADE. But what began as apparently random rumblings of discontent rapidly turned crystal clear: the performance was still not good enough.

And so, in February we made the hard decision to put RADE aside yet again and work on Client/Engine performance. This task took longer than expected (what doesn’t?) and it took the releases of version 6.1.6 in July and 6.1.7 in September to deliver the performance people expected along with a reasonable level of stability. Unfortunately, Helix Client/Server 6.1.7 is not as stable as 6.1.5 — it’s that old balancing act: performance vs. stability — but it is working well enough for most of our customers that, since then, we’ve been able to resume work on Europa almost exclusively. (There’s a 6.1.8 coming soon that addresses some of the stability issues and fixes a couple nagging bugs.)

But that set us back about eight months, and instead of being able to ship the first release of Europa this summer, we came to the realization that shipping RADE in 2010 just wasn’t going to happen. Our first release is now on track for sometime in the first quarter of 2011, and it is going to be scaled back significantly from what you probably expect, but it will provide tools that allow you to begin to modify your database structures in a native OS X environment. (Europa remains compatible with Classic RADE, so you can still dip back into Classic when needed.)

OS X RADE extends both reach and access with AppleScript

In that December 31, 2009 The Latest Word, we laid out our plan for Europa and revealed that a major component would be support for AppleScript in Design Mode of Helix RADE.

As the Mac platform has grown in the past few years, AppleScript has also grown from a simple scripting tool to a full-fledged part of Apple’s Developer Tools. It allows you to do virtually everything from creating a Helix Collection to performing actions heretofore impossible in Design Mode.

But even with AppleScript support built right into the core of Helix, there still beats the heart of an ancient code base that is built on Pascal, a wonderful language that Apple has declared “obsolete.” All of Helix’s Design Mode editors (for creating abaci, templates, posts, etc.) are, naturally, written in Pascal.

Some of those editors — such as the abacus editor — are so complex that bringing them to OS X requires nothing short of a complete rewrite. This it has led us to re-engineer the RADE Design Mode interface to rely more on the use of a context-sensitive inspector window. Creating these all-new editors — while maintaining full backwards compatibility — is proving to be an arduous task. But by shipping an AppleScript-enabled Helix RADE that allows you to work in Design Mode first via scripting, we can put a product in your hands much sooner. When the Preview Releases start appearing, Design Mode editing will be available first only as scriptable tasks. The ‘new and improved’ interface for each editor will be added later, in successive releases.

Thus, in Europa’s initial releases over the next few months, scripting will be the first way to accomplish Design Mode tasks. While we implemented AppleScript in Helix in part to tide us over until the graphic user interface of RADE was complete, we’re willing to bet that for some of you, scripting will eventually become your preferred method of working in Design Mode.

Here’s where OS X RADE begins

For many Helix users, the notion of learning a programming language is a daunting task. AppleScript is a programming language, no doubt about it. But it’s easier to learn than you might think, and learning it with Helix makes it even easier. Besides, many of you might be surprised to learn how much difficulty some professional programmers have in learning how to use Helix!

As we considered this critical transition in light of the delays we’ve encountered, we started looking for ways to make it as painless as possible. And we’ve came up with a solution we think you’ll like.

Available today, the Helix RADE Readiness Kit is a collection of tools designed to assist you in the process of learning AppleScript, and learning it with Helix RADE as its focal point. With the Helix RADE Readiness Kit, you will be able to learn AppleScript faster and sooner. Faster because the kit includes tools and tutorials that teach you AppleScript with the foremost goal of using AppleScript with Helix. Sooner because it lets you start working with Helix in AppleScript today. No need to wait for Europa to roll up your sleeves.

The Helix RADE Readiness Kit, available now for $89(US), contains these items geared towards helping you learn and use AppleScript:

  • Helix Scripting, a stand alone application that brings User Mode Helix and AppleScript together.
  • $50 discount on Script Debugger, the ultimate AppleScript development environment. This limited time offer has expired.
  • Sample scripts you can put to use right away, or examine and adapt for your own needs.
  • A one year subscription to the Learning AppleScript with Helix newsletter and companion web site.
  • Basic scripting support via email and blog.
  • Advanced scripting support at one-half the regular USU support rate.

What are these items in the Helix RADE Readiness Kit, and why are they included? Glad you asked…

  • Helix Scripting: When Apple events for User Mode were added to Helix in the early 90s, they were accessible only to programmers who could write in Pascal or C. Fred Stephenson of Communication Unlimited in France created a scripting addition that made some of those capabilities available to AppleScript, and named it CallHelix. Eventually, Autograph Systems bought Fred’s source code, fattened it up, and created Helix Scripting, an OS X native program that provided all of the functions of the original CallHelix, and more, but did it in an application-centric way.

    When we started drawing up the plan for Europa, we realized that, since Matt Strange (our technical support director) is also owner of Autograph Systems, we already had the code we needed to bring AppleScript to User Mode Helix. It is our plan to incorporate this code directly into the next version of Helix, but until then scripts can be written using Helix Scripting as an intermediary, and they will transition seamlessly into Helix scripts when User Mode scripting appears.

    Helix Scripting gets you ‘RADE Ready’ by enabling you to write scripts now — scripts that work in User Mode with the current OS X native Helix Server and Engine, as well as Classic Helix RADE. When Europa arrives, you’ll have scripts ready to work with User Mode and the foundational AppleScript knowledge you need work in Design Mode, making changes faster than ever before.

  • Script Debugger Discount: When we started learning AppleScript back in the 90s, we used Apple’s Script Editor, which has been included for free with every Mac operating system since System 7. We quickly learned that what so many people said was true: AppleScript can be a really frustrating language!

    AppleScript may have been partly to blame for this, but our opinion is that Script Editor deserves most of the scorn heaped on AppleScript. Writing a program with Script Editor was somewhat like returning to the days of mainframe programming with punch cards. Sure, it was fairly easy to compile scripts in Script Editor, but debugging them was sheer torture; you had to run them and wait for the errors to appear and then try to find the line where the error occurred and then — if your train of thought wasn’t already lost — guess at another way of approaching the problem. In a word: Arrgh! Sadly, Script Editor (now named AppleScript Editor) has not improved much in the intervening years, leaving many people who thought to stick their toe into the AppleScript waters firmly planted on the shore.

    Fortunately, a small company named Late Night Software stepped in and filled the void with Script Debugger. We bought our first copy in 1999 and have never regretted it. Script Debugger is absolutely essential if you want to learn AppleScript quickly and without the pain. Our own programmers use it to debug the code we are writing. Lenny Eiger, a long-time Helix professional says: “I would highly suggest that if anyone uses AppleScript they take a look at Script Debugger. It has many more tools than Apple’s puny little Script Editor.” In Matt Neuburg’s book AppleScript, the Definitive Guide, he writes: “[Script Debugger’s] features easily justify the price if you’re planning on doing any serious AppleScript development; this book could not have been written without it.(Emphasis added)

    Our advice is simple: buy this program! Yes, Script Debugger is a commercial program ($199 US) but we believe in the absolute necessity of this tool so much that we asked Late Night Software to offer Helix users a special deal, and they agreed: for a limited time, Helix users get a $50 discount — that’s 25% off — on Script Debugger. The only catch is that the discount is available only until February 28, 2011. You’re going to want Script Debugger eventually, so buy the kit first, then use the code to save $50.

  • Learning AppleScript with Helix: Realizing that putting the tools into your hands is just the start, we searched about for a way to provide continuing education. We settled on delivering the information in a new newsletter (and companion weblog) format. This bi-monthly newsletter teaches AppleScript from the ground up, teaching with Helix RADE as the focal point. There are many excellent books (see below) for learning AppleScript, but they have to teach in a mostly generic fashion. This newsletter is different in that the focus is on teaching AppleScript in a way that matters most to Helix users. It is also the place to turn to for information as we roll out the new scripting capabilities of Europa. Even for us, scripting Design Mode is going to be a new experience, and we are hoping the companion web site provides a format where learning can happen interactively.

    The first issues cover the basics of AppleScript by teaching you to interact with User Mode. As Helix RADE for OS X unfolds, the focus will change to Design Mode. Tutorials reveal the tricks of working with AppleScript to accomplish Design Mode tasks in a fraction of the time it took in the days of clicking and dragging rectangles, and navigating dialog boxes. With Learning AppleScript with Helix, not only will you be getting leading edge information about scripting Helix, but you’ll be making changes to your own collections faster than ever.

  • Sample scripts: AppleScript isn’t primarily about doing the simple things. It’s about taking control of your environment and shaping it according to your needs. The sample scripts included in the package are all taken from our own real-world use of AppleScript to automate Helix functions. Some you may be able to put to use right away, but more than anything they are for you to study and adapt for your own needs.

    When we publish a new edition of The Latest Word, we send out an email to everybody who has chosen the Inform Me of Updates option in our web-based account manager. (AKA: the Helix Web Store) Our web store ties into a Helix database (naturally) so the email addresses (and permission to send to them) is stored in Helix. How do we manage the sending of hundreds of emails, making sure they go only to the customers who request them? It happens via AppleScript.

    That script, along with others, is included in these samples. If you’ve been looking for a way to integrate Helix with your email communications, or with any other aspect of your business, the included scripts will point you in the right direction.

  • Ongoing support: Despite all of the work that can go into writing articles, creating samples, etc. there are times when you have a question that isn’t being answered. Our commitment to you doesn’t end with what’s in the package. Need help understanding a scripting concept? Send us an email. Want to discuss techniques? comment via the weblog. Need help implementing a solution to solve a problem? Advanced scripting support is available at one-half the regular USU support rate.

In short, the Helix RADE Readiness Kit is all about taking you beyond the purchase to a place where you are confident and competent to use AppleScript and Helix together to make your life easier.

Some additional resources are a couple of clicks away

Learning is much easier with a good instructional book at your side, so we’ve also pulled together a list of books about AppleScript that you might find helpful. Clicking on a link on the right takes you to Amazon.com where you can purchase them and support QSA ToolWorks at the same time. Our highest recommendations go to AppleScript, the Definitive Guide by Matt Neuburg and Apple Training Series: AppleScript 1-2-3 by Sal Soghoian. We have both these books on our own bookshelf, and our tutorials contain references that point you directly to the pages that correspond with the topic at hand. By putting the detailed explanations from the books together with the Helix-centric examples in the newsletter, you’ll be learning faster, but more importantly, your learning will have practical application to Helix.

Help yourself get ready for OS X Helix RADE now

As we have noted before, bringing Helix to OS X has largely been a labor of love. And now, since our efforts are focused primarily on RADE, we are at last working on the part of the play we came to see, so to speak.

As we have noted before, again and again, this labor of love still requires financing. We’ll be launching — at long last — the subscription plan for buying Helix that we promised a year ago. But getting this job done will ultimately require much more money than we believe we can raise by subscription. Fortunately, while the economy has been hard on us all, there should never be a shortage of good ideas. If you have one, let's talk about it in 2011.

As we have noted above, the first OS X Helix RADE is still a couple months away. But it is coming. And the Helix RADE Readiness Kit is available right now through the QSA ToolWorks Web Store for $89.00 USD. (A six-issue subscription to Learning AppleScript with Helix is also available separately for $49.00, for those already own Helix Scripting and Script Debugger.) If we haven’t made the case strongly enough yet, here it is again: it’s time for us all to get serious and learn how to put the combined powers of OS X, Helix and AppleScript to work.

Happy New Year!

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