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Helix 7.0 and the Law of Unintended Consequences

1 May 2015 —“A wise person once said that if you can’t get your idea on the back of a business card, you probably don’t understand it yourself.” So here it is, short and simple: we need your help to keep going.

But first, an apology. When you let nearly five months go by between communications, it’s a little bit rude to begin by asking for money. This “Callisto Dispatch” updates you on what has been going on and explains the financial straits in which we presently find ourselves.

Callisto Status Report

Late last summer, we did something we should have known better than to do: we showed baby pictures. There was our new baby was crawling around the world wide web and we thought enough of our parenting skills to predict a New Year’s Eve debut.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, with no solid basis for saying so, we made another bold prediction: you’d be holding the little tyke in your own hands in the first half of 2015.

What went wrong? Nothing exceptional; sometimes all of our good intentions are simply betrayed by the inaccuracy of our estimates. Tasks such as upgrading to the latest version of wxWidgets — which is required for many of the new things you asked us to do in our survey last year, like switching from MacRoman (ASCII) text to Unicode — have taken longer than expected.

We had hoped to get Helix 6.1 and earlier users to upgrade by generating excitement about what was coming next, but “the law of unintended consequences” somehow foiled that plan. Instead, a substantial number of you appear to have decided that since Helix 7.0 would be available so soon, you’d just skip Helix 6.2 and jump directly to Helix 7.0. The resulting lack of upgrade revenue means that instead of having a financial buffer to compensate for the delay, we’re being forced to reduce our programming hours, which pushes the release of Helix 7.0 further into the future.

So there it is. We need your help. Once again.

May Day call for help

Thermometer Drive Period is Over

We project that we need about $80,000 to complete Helix 7.0 as it is currently envisioned. How do we accelerate the work? Two ways: 1) find an ‘angel investor’ willing to put a large sum of money into Helix, and/or 2) mobilize the Helix army to respond to the current need.

Now, while we would happily entertain any sort of offer from an angel investor, we’re not going to sit around waiting for one to show up. That leaves us with the Helix army: which we have divided into two companies, each with its own assignments.

Company A: Those of you who have not yet upgraded to Helix 6.2: now is the time. Our “back-of-the-envelope” figurings show that if about half of the people currently using Helix 6.1 would upgrade those licenses to Helix 6.2, we’d have enough income to finish Helix 7.0. If you’re in this camp, it’s time to upgrade. Not only will you be doing your part to see that Helix 7.0 ships, but you’ll also be guaranteeing that your Helix 7.0 upgrade will be at the lowest cost.

Company B: To those of you who have already upgraded to Helix 6.2: thank you! You’ve given us nearly two solid years of uninterrupted development time. We know from the past that you’re ready and willing to go ‘above and beyond’ when asked, like when we needed a jolt of funding to make Helix compatible with macOS 10.9 (Mavericks) and put out a call that raised $15,000 in just four days.

And so once again we turn to you for help: starting today, you can pre-purchase Helix 7.0 through our web store. All you have to do is log in to our web store, click the “Upgrades” link, choose the licenses you plan on upgrading, and proceed to checkout, just as you normally would. You’ll receive your Helix 7.0 keys (which won’t work anywhere yet!) and you’ll be all set for the day Helix 7.0 hits the streets.

Tentative pricing for Helix 7.0 has been set, and while it might end up higher when we actually ship, we can guarantee you that it won’t be any lower! If you buy your upgrade now, you’ll be locked in at the guaranteed lowest price.

Operators are standing by

More than a decade ago, when Helix’s Fixed Point data type was limited to values in the range of ±10 million, a single Helix user wrote us a check to enlarge that range. Since that time, Fixed Point data has a range of ±46 quadrillion. That’s what an angel investor did for Helix. Since then, other angels have done likewise, each time to the benefit of all Helix users.

We’ve already got one new feature in Helix 7.0 this way, and as long as your ideas won’t set our schedule back too far, we’ll consider more. Like crowdsourcing, we’ll only take these funds if we can commit to meeting the need. If you want to explore the possibilites in this realm, let’s talk.

In a moment, you’ll read about some of the features we’re including in Helix 7.0. If something you really cared about did not make the cut, consider making it happen by investing in a new feature that would make your business more efficient. Or consider targeting your investment in a Helix focal point, such as document management or performance.

If none of those avenues excite you, the option to purchase User Service Units (USUs) in quantities large or small remains open. Purchased USUs are fully convertible into upgrades or new purchases, making them an excellent open-ended pre-purchase option that works with any budget.

We are open to any idea that can bring in the money needed to complete Helix 7.0. If you’ve got one, contact us and we’ll talk about your plan. One way or another, you can join the Helix army and help us fight our way through the steamy jungle that lies ahead.

The one loud and clear message from our survey is…

… that the passion for Helix is still very much alive. For as long as we have been Helix users — and that dates back to the 1980s — we have heard people say many times that Helix has to do more than merely survive. If Helix isn’t growing, the reasoning goes, it must be dying. And it’s true that at specific times in the past, there was real danger that development on Helix would cease once and for all.

We took the helm in 2004 with that concern in mind, and charted a course of action that would ensure that would never happen under our watch.

So please make no mistake: Helix 7.0 will ship. It is not a question of if, but of when. It’s just that as things stand now, ‘when’ looks to be later than we had hoped.

The Helix 7.0 Sneak Peek

To this point, we’ve kept most of what is planned for Helix 7.0 under wraps, the web-based client being the notable exception. But if we are going to ask you to purchase Helix 7.0 before it actually ships, you have a right to know what will distinguish Helix 7.0 from its predecessors.

Many of the new features we’ve selected for Helix 7.0 were popular selections in the 2014 Feature Game. Others come by way of the angel investor scenario described above. Still others improve stability and security. The rest we’re keeping under wraps for now. Here’s a partial list of major features that are either completely done, or are currently in progress, broken out by where they exist in the Helix product line:

Helix RADE, Helix Engine and Helix Client/Server:

  • Unicode support. Helix has spent its entire existence in the 256-character world of ASCII. That’s now a serious limitation, as Unicode is here and supported virtually everywhere. Helix 7.0 provides Unicode support for text and styled text data and collection file names as well as icons, strings and text labels in Design Mode. Unfortunately, we’ve had to postpone Unicode support for document management, due to the aforementioned financial crunch.
  • Expanded collection file size support. Helix collections are no longer limited to 4GB. In Helix 7.0 they can grow to as large as 64GB. No one likes to have to archive data; now, you may never have to worry about that again.
  • PDF replaces PICT as Helix standard for Picture field data, resulting in sharper images and more flexibility.
  • Collection update integration. Like the structure check before it, collection updating is now a part of RADE, Server and Engine, with an option to automatically create a zip archive backup.

Helix RADE Design Mode:

  • Column Sorting: When viewing a collection or relation window in List Mode, you can now sort by any column, just by clicking on the column headers. Creation and Modification Date columns have been added, and you can sort in ascending or descending order, up to three levels deep. You can even hide columns you don’t care to see.
  • Object Timestamping: Knowing when an object was created and/or modified is a very useful piece of information in the design and construction process. In Helix 7.0, icons are timestamped on creation and when modified. This information appears in the Inspector when the object is selected, and as new columns in List Mode.

Helix Client/Server (and Helix Personal Server):

  • Helix Web Client, Phase One. In the first iteration of this highly-sought-after feature, Clients can open list views, and add, edit and delete records on entry views. Share your Helix data with any device that has a web browser that supports basic html5 and css3 specifications.
  • TLS/SSH Secured Connection (trusted host and encrypted communication). In addition to its two levels of password protection and other security features, Helix collections now support secure data access, using industry-standard authentication and encryption.
  • User-based idle time logout. Network managers can now tailor Helix data access to individual users’ work habits, specifying how long a user’s workstation can be idle before being automatically logged out.

Helix Utility:

  • Compact Object Map. When compressing an existing collection, this new capability boosts performance for older collections by removing the gaps that occur in a collection’s internal Object Map over time.
  • Rescale Collection. Along with providing the ability to expand a collection up to 64GB, this new tool adjusts the ‘internal block size,’ allowing collections that won’t be growing to such an extreme size to run more compactly. (A collection can be rescaled — up or down — as often as desired.)
  • Expert Mode. This tab provides collection repair tools for qualified users.

Most of these features are already done, waiting for beta testing to chase out any remaining bugs. And as the old saying goes, “Last but by no means least…” there is the usual assortment of fixes for old bugs and code modernization.

We have toiled in obscurity for long enough

In the dozen or so years since Helix was brought back from the brink of extinction, we have worked very hard to fulfill the promises we first made, while also making a conscious effort to stay under the radar. No matter how good Helix might have been, requiring a potential new user to find an old machine to run it would have killed the sale and left a bad impression on people for whom ‘first impressions’ might last longer than they ought. Happily, those days are finally behind us.

However improbably, Helix has endured. And we did not put you, ourselves and our families through this epic struggle merely so we could listen to another chorus of “How do we know you will still be around next year?” If we haven’t demonstrated why you should have confidence in us by now, we may never shake that monkey off our back. We did it because we believe in it; people need databases and ours is surely the best one they will ever use.

The idea that a single tool can be used to create and deploy virtually any type of database application, for an individual or a workgroup, remains the driving force behind all our efforts. Technologically, our ducks are very much in a row. We know what Helix needs to continue to grow and thrive, and we have a very good idea of the order in which those pieces must be put in place. But we need your help to take the next step. The future belongs to those who are up to the task. Don’t think of it as an expense, but as an investment in the future.

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