Goldenseal Pro- Saving & Posting (Sept 25)

At heart, Goldenseal is a database program. It shows you screens to enter different types of company info, which it then saves to your hard drive. After that, Goldenseal helps you to use all that hard-earned data. You can look up past records, print business forms, view reports, reconcile bank statements, run special operations like Pay Bills and Write Payroll, etc.

Business data is more complicated than your usual address book database, because it is very interrelated. For example, when you enter a material purchase, it needs to link with a vendor account (for Accounts Payable), a project account (for job costing and T&M billing), and a bank account (when you pay for it, now or later). It may also link to Cost Items and Assembles, to update their prices for future estimates.

When you save a new record, we also update all the related records. That process is called posting. It happens during the “thunk” sound you hear, after a save. During posting, we first open and revise all the linked items. Then we write everything to disk at the same time, to reduce the risk they get out of sync.

Goldenseal currently posts and saves whenever you close a window, print it, or move to a different record. You also can force a save when you hit the Enter key, or choose Save Record from the Edit menu. Before the save happens, we check to make sure everything makes sense. If important data is missing, you’ll see a warning message. That prevents half-finished records that won’t post properly.

When you switch from one window to another, we don’t post or save. That way, if you are in the middle of an estimate and the phone rings, you can just leave it unfinished, and go look at something else. It can stay that way until you switch estimates, close that window, or quit/exit.

Goldenseal Pro uses a single-window interface, with each type of record in a tab, rather than a separate window. The saving and posting process is exactly the same. We probably can mark the tabs that have unfinished records.

We are currently working on the code that saves data from new or changed records. We wrote that part of Goldenseal almost 20 years ago, so half the battle is remembering how the current version does it. At the moment we are stepping through the code, simultaneously and slowly, on an old Mac, a new Mac and a Windows machine. It could easily take another week or two to fully understand the old system, so we can write new ones.

Fortunately, the existing database ‘back end’ and the posting process still work fine, and won’t need any changes.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
TurtleSoft.com

Goldenseal Pro- Windows Interface (Sept 14)

Our main programming season runs September to June, so it’s ramping up now. First thing on the agenda is the user interface for Windows.

Last January, we built a single-window version for Windows that we really liked. It has a ribbon at the top, an outline view on the left, and a main data entry area on the right. No menu bar at all: everything happens by clicking in the ribbon. We were very excited about the improvement. It condensed the current 200+ menu commands into a much simpler layout. Much more understandable, and easier to use.

Then we switched over to Macintosh, and spent a couple months developing a similar window layout. The first attempt was almost identical. Then we removed most of the clutter from the top, and found that it worked the same, but looked even better.

So we went back to Windows, planning to revise it to look the same as the Mac version. We spent a couple months futzing with toolbars, tear-off windows, and different styles of ribbons. Unfortunately, every attempt failed miserably. Many would crash with mystery error messages. The rest just plain didn’t work.

Software design is hard. There are many ways to fail at it, and over the years we have failed many, many times. Often in new and creative ways.  Throwing things out and starting over is a normal part of the software design process. So is giving up for a while, then coming back later. Sometimes inspiration strikes during the gap.

So, in May we decided to work on other things, and postponed the Windows ribbon problem until September.

Well, now it’s September. We still haven’t discovered how to make the Windows and Mac versions look the same, and still work well. There may be an answer lurking in some hidden nook or cranny of the MFC library, but our time is finite, and it’s time to stop looking. They will just be different.

Goldenseal Pro for Windows will have a ribbon at the top, similar to Microsoft Excel or Word. It will be easier for us to program it that way, and Windows users will already be familiar with the appearance. On Mac, Goldenseal will have a simpler, cleaner, more elegant design. That’s what Mac users expect.

The bottom 90% of the Goldenseal Pro window will look the same on both platforms. The top 10% of the window will be different, even though it does the same stuff. Windows will have tabs and labels for each of the ribbon sections, and the Mac won’t.

For most users, this is probably the ideal solution. However, anyone who switches platforms will find there are slightly different instructions for Mac vs Windows. It will be a slight nuisance for those users, and a much bigger nuisance for our tech writing staff. They will be explaining everything twice.

Now that we’ve settled on the basic appearance, it’s just a matter of getting many small things to work, one by one. At the moment, it feels as if the current Goldenseal code is a living and breathing organism, and MFC is a giant and rather clunky mechanical robot. “All” we need to do is hook up electrodes in the right places, so they can work together.

We will post screen shots and pre-release apps, once progress gets further along.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
TurtleSoft.com

 

 

 

Switching Website to https (Sept 7)

Over the next few days, we will be switching the entire TurtleSoft website over to https. Using https instead of http means there is encryption on all Internet traffic to and from our website’s server. When the process is completed, you will probably see a green padlock next to the page link at the top of your browser. Otherwise, the change has no visible effect. 

Using encryption gives you a little bit more privacy and security. For that reason, https is gradually becoming the standard for all websites (even ones like ours, that don’t process credit card numbers or other sensitive data).

Once we make the switch, some page links may become unavailable for a short while.

Meanwhile, our main programming season has begun again, and we are currently working on the Windows interface code. More about that later.

FRIDAY 9/8 UPDATE:  All pages on turtlesoft.com now use https. Please let us know if you find any bad links.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
TurtleSoft.com

Goldenseal Pro for the Cloud (Aug 25)

Every week or two, we get unsolicited phone calls from companies that migrate desktop apps to “the cloud”. It’s known as SAAS (Software as a Service). Usually they ask a lot of questions and try to sound like buyers, before revealing the real reason they called. However, still not as annoying as the almost daily “Hi, this is Heather…” scam calls.

Basically, SAAS means that the Goldenseal app will run on a server somewhere, instead of on your own computer. Your company file will also be stored on a server somewhere, and you’ll run it over the Internet. It’s pretty much like using a website.

The plus side for you is that you can access your data from any desktop or laptop computer that has an Internet connection, and you don’t even need to install Goldenseal. Up-front costs are also lower. The plus side for us is steadier cash flow, since it’s a monthly payment instead of a one-time fee. It’s why QuickBooks is aggressively moving all users to their monthly cloud-based service, and gradually abandoning their desktop apps. A monthly fee is more lucrative than forcing people into upgrades.

The minus side for you is that you can’t access your data if you don’t have an Internet connection (or stop paying the monthly fee). It’s also more expensive in the long run. The minus side for both you and us is that your data is totally dependent on someone maintaining those servers properly. One potential problem is plain old data loss, if there is an unfortunate sequence of events that kills both their main data storage, and the backups. A more subtle (and more common) problem is a data breach, where some stranger suddenly has all your company records.

We do not want to get into the server maintenance business. Even if we have incredibly smart people tending things, there are always smarter people with more time on their hands, trying to breach whatever security we have. It’s just too risky. We don’t want to be worrying all the time about losing or spilling other people’s vital data.

Likewise, we don’t want to be trusting all those small companies who are calling to offer SAAS services. It just adds one more layer of risk, since we don’t know how good they are at security. If they fail, we and our users are the ones that suffer, while they can quietly disappear.

There are a few larger companies that offer SAAS. So far we haven’t done much investigating of their services. It doesn’t make sense to do so before Goldenseal Pro is out the door. The computer industry in general has been very sloppy about data breaches, so even the biggest providers will have some risk. SAAS sounds great in theory, but it adds more failure points.

Our vision for Goldenseal Pro is to let you run your own data server. It will still depend on regular backups and decent network security. Fortunately, both Windows and Mac OS provide those features, without much effort. You really should use Time Machine (Mac) or File History and Windows Backup/Restore (Windows) for all your data, not just ours.

Despite the problems, it still may make sense for us to offer a cloud-based SAAS service, if only because it’s becoming so popular. We’d appreciate hearing opinions about it from users, and potential users.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
TurtleSoft.com

 

Goldenseal Pro for Smartphones (Aug 12)

Many people have asked if we can put Goldenseal Pro on a smartphone. Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding “no”.  The hardware is too underpowered, the screen is too small, and the operating systems (iOS and Android) are simply not designed for building complex desktop apps.

However, what we can do is build multiple small smartphone apps that each do one thing, and “talk” with the home company file back on your desktop.

Android and Cocoa Touch (the Apple framework for mobile) both have excellent support for communicating via html. We can package our data easily into something called JSON, for sending between devices. The hard part will be getting the desktop version of Goldenseal Pro to act as a web server, so the mobile apps can connect to it via html. If that isn’t possible, we can use a VPN (virtual private network) or something else.

We already need to rewrite our current desktop networking code to run under Cocoa and MFC, and it would sure be nice if we can use the same code to connect all types of devices.  Right now Goldenseal uses TCP/IP sockets to communicate between desktops, but it’s time to consider other approaches. To test them, we’ll need at least a prototype version of a smartphone app. The best tool for that will be an app for iPhone and iPad, using the new Swift programming language. We will start with something very simple, like entering a purchase or viewing the contact log.

Prototyping is a gradual process, so we’ve started on it now, and will mosey along on it over the next year or so.  The goal will be to have it functional by the time we start work on networking, which is probably a year off. 

Networking code is very hard to write. In the past we subcontracted most of it. However, if we can use something that is built into the operating systems, we may not need to.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
Turtlesoft.com

 

Goldenseal Pro and C++ (Aug 3)

For the code that runs Goldenseal, we use the C++ programming language. C++ was first developed in the early 1980s as an object-oriented extension of the C language, which was introduced itself in the early 1970s.

C is currently the second most popular programming language (behind Java). It’s often used to write operating systems (Windows, Unix, Mac OS), code libraries, and imbedded systems like the one that runs your car or truck. C++ is the third most popular language (per Wikipedia). It is better suited for large desktop apps like Goldenseal. The object-oriented features make it a teeny bit slower, but they also make it much, much easier to program big projects.

C++ was first “standardized” in 1998, with a set of “standard libraries” for handling many basic programming tasks. At that time, we were already using PowerPlant, a similar framework written in the mid-1990s. We used a few of the new C++ standard library features, but for most, we already had a decent version from PowerPlant.

Since then, C++ had a minor update in 2004, and then big upgrades in 2011 and 2014. Another is due this year. Unfortunately, we couldn’t use the many new features and improvements in the C++ language until we updated from 32-bit to 64-bit. That broke most of PowerPlant, so we started using a few of the new C++ features two years ago, to replace the old PowerPlant code.

Some programming work requires intense “focus”. Basically, the programmer needs to immerse in the entire system for days on end, and not think about much else. It’s similar to what you need when working around high-voltage electricity, or on steep roofs. But it goes on for weeks, not hours. It takes a day or two to rev up.

We left some of the interface work unfinished in May. The weather probably won’t suck enough until October, to start back on it again. Dealing with the quirks of Cocoa, MFC and Objective-C require lots and lots of focus. However, there are simpler things our staff can work on, even with summer’s distractions. Some programming is fairly routine, and can start and stop at will. It’s more like, say, painting walls or mowing grass.

We are currently going through the C++ 2014 standards, and picking out things we can use now, to improve Goldenseal Pro. There is some really nifty stuff in there.

Some of the features will help us do a better job with the networked apps. Some will help support multiple threads (e.g. use the Find command, and then do something in another window while it runs).

Many of the improvements are “safety” features, which allow code to not crash or run out of memory. We already have ways to accomplish that, but modern C++ does it better, and more concisely. Some things make the code stricter, so the compiler will point out stupid errors. Using the new C++ libraries means we will accidentally fix a few bugs, and prevent more in the future.

There are a few things we can probably change with a huge text-replace. Most will require looking at hundreds or thousands of code bits, and deciding what to change. It is all stuff than can be done gradually. We’ll work on it now, and probably will be doing it for many summers to come.

It’s invisible work, but it will make Goldenseal Pro more reliable, and easier to program and maintain.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
Turtlesoft.com

Goldenseal Pro Cash Flow (July 23)

The cash flow for creating software is a lot like building a spec house. Income only happens when the project is finished, so the builder needs some way to finance labor and materials along the way.

TurtleSoft started out very, very easily. The first estimating template only took a month or two to write, during a slow winter spell in early 1986. Sitting at the computer was a welcome relief from swinging a hammer. Turtle Creek Carpentry made enough extra profits the rest of the year to pay for the time. In March 1987 we ran an ad in Fine Homebuilding to sell it, and the software business rocket-launched from there. You might say that the initial development costs were almost free.

As we expanded, each new MacNail module took about 1 year of programmer time. HyperEstimator took a year. BidMagic took 2 or 3. Those were good times, when a small investment in programming could create a massive amount of income. It wasn’t hard at all to finance new product development. The hardest part was dealing with exponential growth, and then, dealing with the plateau when it ended.

We wrote the first prototypes for Goldenseal in 1993, and started writing C++ code in earnest two years later. It was our first ‘real’ app, and a much bigger project than anything we had done before. The first estimates were 5 or 6 programmer-years. It eventually took almost twice that to get to version 1.0.

The first half went smoothly, with plenty of income from our older software to pay for the work. Then, in early 1997, Apple announced a $708 million-dollar quarterly loss. There was speculation the company would be swallowed by IBM or Sun, and Macintosh sales dropped almost to zero. More than half our sales were on Mac, and those disappeared.

The good times were over, and the second half of the Goldenseal programming happened on a shoestring. We couldn’t have finished it without loyal MacNail users who purchased pre-release versions (plus a lot of credit card debt).

Cash flow was tight at Turtlesoft until the release of Goldenseal for Windows in 2002. Then, for the next five years, net income became rosier than ever. Sales were better than the MacNail days, and support costs were smaller. Those were boom years for construction, and it flowed down to construction software.

However, we had learned a lesson about sudden loss of cash flow, and decided in 2005 to start a ‘backup’ business with steadier income, to offset the ups and downs of construction software. The result was SmartKnives, which sells Swiss Army knives and Leatherman tools (mostly purchased from airport auctions). It started out mostly as entertainment for the programmers, but as software sales declined post-recession, we ramped up knife sales.

Right now, SmartKnives is paying most of the bills, and funding the programming work on Goldenseal Pro. Running a second business does slow things down. However, programming work can be very draining (and fattening). There’s a lot to be said for doing it part-time. Cleaning and photographing vintage knives is a pleasant break from hours at the computer. 

Ever since the beginnings 30 years ago, our programming efforts have been very seasonal. October to April is the main programming season. We usually slack off or take a full break in the summer, and do outdoor things. Difficult problems often become so much easier after a couple months of being ignored.

As we did with the original Goldenseal, we have an option to pre-order Goldenseal Pro. It’s cheaper than the final upgrade price, and it helps prod us (and finance us) to work slightly faster. Most likely we will publicize it more (and probably raise the price) as we get closer to completion.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
TurtleSoft.com

 

 

 

Goldenseal Pro Tech Support (July 12)

As we modernize our code for Goldenseal Pro, it’s also an opportunity to update the rest of our software business. Right now we are thinking about tech support.

Our software has always included unlimited free support, by phone or email.

Naturally, it’s very popular with users, but it also helps us. Many of our new features and improvements come from user suggestions. And, even when there is confusion or a problem, it tells us what needs improving in the software design and documentation. The amount of support we need to provide keeps decreasing, as we gradually make our software easier to understand.

On the minus side, technical support is very hard work, especially when done over the phone. Helping frustrated callers requires tact, patience, technical skill, and a thick skin. It is hard to find all those together in one person, and even harder for any given human to keep it up for hours. Most callers are easy to work with, but some are difficult and draining.

As phone service switches from land lines to cells and VOIP, there is also a latency problem. The cellular network typically adds a delay of 90 to 200 milliseconds each way. That’s only 1 or 2 tenths of a second, but it’s enough to disrupt conversation ‘flow’. Staff and callers are more likely to interrupt each other, and seem rude or impatient when it’s really just transmission lag.

The other option, email support, has the big advantage of being asynchronous. You can send a message at 3 AM or whenever, and we can answer it without interrupting our other work. In an email reply, we can paste a link to an Answers page on our website, or copy text from there. We also have time to compose a thoughtful answer (and do testing or research if necessary), without you waiting on the phone.

Of course, email support is not perfect. The worst problem is the delay, which is annoying even if we answer at maximum speed. Also, some of our users are vision-impaired or dyslexic, and can’t work with text. Some support callers are just generally frustrated, and need a reassuring voice, rather than text. In general, we find that some problems are much easier to solve by email, and some are much easier via the give-and-take of a phone conversation.

Live support is a third option that is becoming more common: it is text-based, but more real-time than email. It’s better in some ways, but also has its flaws. It probably can’t replace either of the other support options, but it may be a reasonable supplement.

We have been looking at tech support provided by other software companies. In general, support usually depends on the complexity and cost of the program. Small, single-purpose apps (less than $100) rarely include phone support, and often have slow email turnaround. Large, enterprise software (more than $3000) usually requires an annual fee for support and updates, or pay-per-call.  In between, phone support is more often available and free, but it is becoming less common. What there is, often goes to an overseas call center.

We are not to the point of making any decisions yet, and would welcome user feedback on this subject.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
TurtleSoft.com

Goldenseal Pro Database (June 28)

Goldenseal stores a lot of data. Many users have more than 100,000 records in their company file, and some have millions. The code that keeps track of everything is an important part of our ‘back end’. It needs to access records quickly, and store them reliably on disk.

For the original Goldenseal, we licensed an object database called NeoAccess. It ran on both Mac and Windows, and was very popular in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the source code had serious bugs that were never fixed, and we ended up rewriting a lot of it (especially after its developer folded their business).

For Goldenseal Pro, we looked at a couple dozen open-source and commercial database libraries, both object and relational. Using a 3rd-party library has its advantages: someone else did all the work, maybe they are an expert, and maybe they will keep it updated. However, as we found with NeoAccess, other people’s code also has disadvantages.  For one thing, it’s usually easier to fix one’s own bugs and design flaws. Every library also has a learning curve, plus quirks and limitations. There is no perfect way to manage a database.

After a few trials, we finally decided to write our own database code for Goldenseal Pro.  Since we already rebuilt half of someone else’s database, designing a whole new one didn’t seem too risky. We kept some of the design from NeoAccess, but replaced the parts that didn’t work well.

The main thing any database needs is a list of where each record is in the file. NeoAccess used a ‘binary tree’, which is theoretically the fastest way to find things, using the least amount of memory. However, modern computers are designed to move relatively big blocks of memory, so it makes sense to have a tree that is ‘wide’ (with more records in each branch, and fewer branches). A wide tree gives faster record access on modern machines, and also uses simpler, cleaner code.

We wrote the first part of the database last summer, then tested and debugged it over the winter. The past few months we finished the remaining ‘tree’ code, to handle larger numbers of records.

If you want to see what C++ source code looks like, here is our function that looks for an empty spot to index a new record, and creates a new index if the current one is full:

SInt64 DB_RecordIndex::AddObjectToIndex(const DB_PersistentObject *aObject, CTCS_FileStream *inStream)
{
    TCS_FailNILMsgID(aObject, errID_BadObject);
    TCS_FailNILMsgID(inStream, errID_BadStream);
    SRecordIndexInfo info;
   
    if (mTreeLevel > 0)
    {                   // add to the last subindex
        DB_RecordIndex *lastIndex = FetchLastSubindex();
        DB_ObjectWatcher watcher (lastIndex);
        SInt64 subMark = lastIndex->AddObjectToIndex(aObject, inStream);
        if (subMark != 0) return subMark;    // was added to subindex
       
        if (mRecordArray.GetAvailableSpace() > 0 && !IsFilled())
        {            // still room for more subindexes here, so add one
            return AddSubindex(aObject, inStream);
        }
        else if (IsRootIndex())
        {            // Need to increase tree level by one
            mRecordArray.FetchFirstItem(info);
            subMark = ShiftItemsToSubindex(inStream, info.startID);
            IncrementTreeLevel();
            return AddSubindex(aObject, inStream);
        }
        else
        {         // subindex is full. Pass back to parent
            SetIsFilled();
            return 0;
        }
    }
    else if (mRecordArray.GetAvailableSpace() > 0 && !IsFilled())
    {            // base level index with room here.
        info.fileMark = aObject->getFileMark();
        info.itemID = aObject->GetDBID();
        mRecordArray.Append(info);
        MakeDirty();
        return info.fileMark;
    }
    else if (IsRootIndex())
    {          // the array is full, so it’s time to become a new parent!
        mRecordArray.FetchFirstItem(info);
        ShiftItemsToSubindex(inStream, info.itemID);
        IncrementTreeLevel();
        return AddSubindex(aObject, inStream);
    }
    else return 0;            // this base index is full.  Pass back to the parent
}
 
There are plenty of quirks to managing a database. We need to keep track of empty spaces, so the file stays compact. We also store each record’s location in two different places, so it will be possible to fix a corrupted index (something that NeoAccess could not do).
 

To keep the database code simpler, we take advantage of the fact that record IDs are always increasing, so we can just add them at the end and have a sorted list. We also just leave empty spaces when you delete a record, rather than rearrange the whole tree. Our primary goal is to make the code reliable and easy to maintain. So far, that approach has been successful.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
TurtleSoft.com

Goldenseal Accounting- Audit Trail (June 19)

One of the lesser-known features of Goldenseal accounting software is the Audit Trail, tucked away inside the View-Security menu. It tracks when each record is created, changed or deleted. If multiple users sign on with different passwords, it also shows who did what. You can control exactly what gets logged with Options-Preferences-Data Entry. For security reasons, the Audit Trail can’t be changed, so it creates a permanent record of what happens to your business records.

The Audit Trail is a valuable accounting feature for larger companies. You can look back at all changes made to records, which makes it much easier to investigate possible fraud (or just carelessness). We also use it occasionally when diagnosing posting problems in user files.

On the flip side, the Audit Trail adds many records to the file, and increases file size by 10% to 30%. Many of our users do their own data entry (or have a relative do it), so it is unlikely they will ever need the trail for a security investigation. The feature is obscure enough that most people don’t even know it is running.

The conversion to Goldenseal Pro is a chance to redo some of our early design choices. After 17 years of user inputs, we have a much better picture of what is actually useful. The Audit Trail is one of those things we can probably do better.

It doesn’t make sense to remove the Audit Trail, because it helps some users, and it already works fine. However, when we import data from older files, we probably will skip the old Audit Trail entries. If they are ever needed for an investigation, they are still available in the old file. If moving them to the new file is important to you, please let us know.

We may also change our default settings, and leave the Audit Trail off for most users. If you don’t use multiple passwords, then you probably don’t need it.

Another option is to go in the opposite direction, and expand the Audit Trail into a full ‘journaling’ system. Some software programs (e.g. Photoshop) store a list of all changes made, so you can go back with Undo multiple times, or selectively apply some past changes but not others.

To make a journaling system work for accounting, the Audit Trail would end up using more than half of the file size. Having multiple undo would add complexity to our posting code, and it may have security issues.

We won’t change the Audit Trail by much in the first release of Goldenseal Pro, but we may revise it in a future update. If you have often wanted to undo deletions made days ago, please let us know. That is probably the best advantage we’d get from a more complete Audit Trail.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
TurtleSoft.com