Everything Else

What it all means, somewhat belatedly

January 10, 2012 — We all know rationally that New Year’s Eve is nothing more than just an arbitrary mark in the space/time continuum. Nonetheless, it has, in the space of seven years with the sole exception of the one just past, afforded us several great moments to assess our situation. So each December 31st we’ve published a ‘State of the Code’ message to see where we’ve been and where we expect to go in the next year.

Due to an old-fashioned mix-up on a high-tech platform, as the calendar flipped over to 2012, the last of several drafts of the 2011 missive ended up reliably locatable in cyberspace, but only if you knew where to look and that you should be looking for it. Disconnect! But that unhappy, somewhat sloppy conclusion to 2011 affords us a chance, today, ten whole days into the new year, to wind the clock back for a moment and imagine reading this before you go to bed after a great New Year's Eve party. Or sometime the next morning...

But first, a bit of unhappy news. Missing the real New Year’s Eve was not our only miss this go-round.

When we announced the Europa Pioneer Plan this past summer, we announced our plan to release an update every month, on the 10th, since that is when we started the project. Within the context of that commitment, we projected what each new Preliminary Release would do that the one before it did not. On December 10th, we said that the Abacus Expression Language (AEL), the last part of making the Abacus scriptable, would be the focus of our January 10th release.

That goal has been reached. The AppleScript phase of RADE’s evolution to macOS has been achieved in just eight months. So in 2011, not only have we put a macOS RADE in people’s hands, but one that paves the way to remove the tyrannic foot of Classic from the necks of RADE users. When this next Preliminary Release comes out, those who wish to leave Classic behind can do it once and for all. Our promise to make it unnecessary to have to keep finding machines that run Classic will have been fulfilled, at least for those who have jumped on the AppleScript bandwagon.

However, the reason you’re reading this — instead of a release announcement today — is that, although we have completed that work, the first thing we did when testing the AEL was to uncover a bug that’s existed in Helix for at least 15 years. It’s quite a rare bug, but when it strikes, the result is the dreaded ‘not corrected’ message at the end of running Update Collection.

Using the AEL to create complex abaci, we unmasked it, and have spent the larger part of the last week trying to pin it down. It’s mighty elusive, which is probably why it has so long been ignored by previous engineering teams. But stubborn beasts that we are, we’re committed to fixing it, one way or another. We’ve got two ideas in mind, and if the more elegant but ‘proper’ technique doesn’t succeed in the next day or two, we’ll go with a less-appealing ‘brute force’ method.

This whole episode reminds us that one of the promises we made regarding AppleScript was true. We said it would enable us to isolate and fix bugs faster than ever. While this particular bug might not be easily repaired, using AppleScript can reproduce it at will, and that is the first step toward fixing any bug.

So we ask for your patience; the January release will be along soon. And now, without further ado…

A New Year

In last year’s New Year’s Eve message, we lamented the fact that 2010 went by before we could deliver any part of our promise that it would be the year that Helix RADE — code named Europa — would make its debut as a macOS native application, as we had promised a year earlier.

In a year that was tumultuous for all concerned, one thing we very happily cannot say at the end of this one is that we failed to deliver again. In 2011, at long last, there is a Helix RADE for macOS.

In 2011, the promise of RADE for macOS at last took form, though not in the form most Helix users would have liked to see. For dyed-in-the-wool Helix users from the days of Helix Express, Double Helix II, Double Helix, Helix 1+ and all the way back to just plain, old Helix, finally seeing RADE run in macOS was a little like waiting through years of mediocre sequels based on your favorite books, only to find the grande finale to be less than satisfying.

For those who have been using Helix since the beginning, while there have been difficult upgrades in the past, the only truly gut-wrenching Helix upgrade was the one from Helix 5 to Helix 6, and then only if they were trying to use the macOS parts of it. Helix 6 products run in both Classic and macOS (for those of you who only found us recently) and in Client/Server they can all be used simultaneously, which only causes more confusion (in spite of how truly wonderful it is).

Gut-wrenching or free-falling?

Mercifully, this current transition is only a phase. A necessary part of the evolution of Helix, made possible by and caused by macOS. But calling this phase ‘gut-wrenching’ barely scratches the surface. It’s more like being hurled out of an airplane at 10,000 feet: time seems to stand still, ‘comfort’ is not part of the picture, and all you can cling to is the assurances you’ve been given that the parachute will deploy before you reach the ground. Assuming that works out, who knows where you will land, or how much more effort it will take to return to comfortable surroundings?

Helix always seemed to be a tool that allowed you to explore the art of the possible. And every upgrade brought it more integral functionality, but always with an emphasis on us, the collection designers, being the ones who call the shots. We have been piloting ever-improving airplanes through familiar skies. Now, for the first time, along comes a Helix in which our existing collections turn out to have things in them that can no longer be supported. We are suddenly being asked not only to climb out of the pilot’s seat, but to jump out of the airplane!

We swallowed hard when we realized we would never see our multicolored buttons again. We gasped when we discovered we could no longer specify the font, size, style and color of many on screen objects. And we came almost completely unglued when we realized we could no longer tab into or out of a popup, radio button or check box. How could we ever make an adjustment to that kind of interface?

And worse than all that was the wait until it even became practical enough to use in place of the Classic apps with the same names. The first releases were rightly called “Preview” releases because they only offered a glimpse at the approaching scenery, between crashes and other false steps. Happily, those days are behind us, but even so, the transition to macOS required users to ‘take a leap’ of faith, and when you’re plummeting through the air at terminal velocity, it’s hard not to wonder if this was the right thing to do.

Indeed, there is still a sizable chunk of the user base that is still using Classic Helix; still waiting for us to “finish” Helix. Those users believe it is still just not ready to use, and the icing on their horrific cake is that any excitement about RADE finally running in macOS is tempered, if not totally obliterated, by revulsion at the idea of having to use AppleScript to do any part of it.

Have you actually tried skydiving?

Here’s the thing…

While a lot of people do, most people simply don’t like skydiving. Among those who don’t like it, the vast majority have never actually tried it. There are, of course, those who have, who determined legitimately that they don’t like it. There are some that try again, but once that preference has been set, few ever do.

Our particular brand of skydiving has gotten safe enough to become ‘routine’ for some users. But for the moment, this message is for those who are still in the airplane, having either never considered jumping, or who jumped once and refuse to jump again. Please read on.

Over the last eight months, a few hundred very brave and dedicated users have been diving into the world of AppleScript. These users have learned how to do old things in new ways, and many have learned how to use AppleScript in Helix to do things Helix could never do before.

Their skies have not fallen. They’ve deployed the parachute and are sometimes even enjoying the breathtaking view.

These brave souls have not always been completely comfortable with how things have progressed, or, more precisely, about having to work in an environment where the rules are still somewhat in flux. But they have pressed on and have seen steady improvement with each monthly release. The ground is getting closer; the fraying of their nerves is subsiding.

They have seen real progress as each month’s release notes chipped away at the unfinished sections of code. And as that progress continued, a few of more thought “Why not give it a try?” and discovered that this sport wasn’t so bad after all.

And so, once again we invite you: join the Europa Pioneer Plan. Sign up for the Learning AppleScript with Helix tutorials. You may acquire a taste for this new way of working and find that you like it after all.

So what does it all mean, at last?

At the top of this page, we pointed to the opportunity afforded us by the turning of the year. But all the assessments in the world are worthless if their results make no sense. Where do we stand now that 2012 is upon us? What does it all mean, at last?

Here’s what it means:

  • It means that Helix has survived all the Macintosh hardware reinventions, from the Motorola 68K to the IBM PowerPC to the Intel Xeon. It has run successfully on every desktop and laptop computer Apple has ever produced.
  • It means that Helix has survived countless upheavals in the Macintosh OS, from the original beige Macintosh, driven by a Motorola 68000 processor, with 128K of RAM, a 9" black-and-white screen and a 400K floppy disk drive, through MultiFinder in System 5, Cooperative Multitasking in System 7, all the way through macOS 10.7 with its Unix core, with 27" iMacs running the latest Intel processors with multi-terabyte drives and 8 Gigabytes of RAM.
  • It means that Helix has survived countless technology changes. From black and white to 256 shades of grey to ‘millions’ and then ’‘billions’ of colors. From AppleTalk to EtherTalk to TCP/IP & Wi-Fi. From QuickDraw to Quartz to CoreGraphics. The list goes on.
  • It means that the application that you wrote in Helix all those years ago still works.
  • It means that the experiment you began in your business back in the 1980s can be continued by your children, who are ready to take over the business from you nearly 30 years later.

In summary, it means that Helix RADE for macOS and beyond is in production and you will always be able, within the context of the prevailing set of rules, to make your data do whatever you need it to do, just as you have since you built your first Helix collection.

Step up to the door

To those of you who have yet to take the plunge: you may not be ready to jump quite yet, but you need to get ‘suited up’ and step up to the door. And if you do decide to jump now, well, you have the collective experience of those who have gone before you, who are once again feeling solid earth beneath their feet, and getting their legs back.

But enough with the analogies. All of this has been said before, somewhere or other in this vast sea of words, but here, without the distractions, is what you need to do…

First, upgrade to Helix 6.1. If you are still using a version of Helix RADE prior to 6.0, the upgrade price is $225. If doing it all at once is not possible, put aside $25 each week for nine weeks. We will still be here, and Helix will still need the help.

If you’re already using Helix RADE 6.0, a mere $50 will get you to 6.1. That’s a whole lot less than your more skeptical brothers and sisters, and while it sure is a lot less money, Helix still needs your help, and we will still be here in two weeks after you have put aside your $25 a couple of times.

Once you’ve joined us in 6.1, become a member of the Europa Pioneer Plan. As a member, you get every RADE upgrade through the end of May of 2012 for $200. (You can also pay $160 to join now and $20 per month for the next four months, but that hardly seems sensible.)

The important thing about the Europa Pioneer Plan is that the more members there are, the more power we have to keep the engines running, and the faster we will make progress toward the conclusion of this critical phase in the evolution of Helix.

Finally, if you are already using Helix 6.1.x, even if you are already using Helix 6.1.10, this appeal is for those of you running in Client/Server. In addition to all the graphical user interface work that lies ahead, we will soon begin to move all our products into the Helix 6.2 family. We will need your help there too.

Make sure your licenses are current. There’s still confusion out there about the fact that Helix 6.1 is a paid upgrade from Helix 6.0. Some people think they are getting the full 6.1 experience because the splash screen says ‘Helix 6.1.’ But read that splash screen closer, and if it says “for PowerPC” then you are using a limited version of Helix 6.1 that fulfilled a promise we made when the only macOS native Helix product was Helix Server. For some of you, this is the biggest expense you will face in getting current and therefore the most painful step you will take in this process. As we’ve said before: if the cost of the upgrade is too much, contact us; we’ll work something out for you.

These are tall orders, we know. But together they form the bridge we all must cross and we want to see you all on the other side, and soon. Until then, have a very warm, safe and Happy New Year!

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