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Desktop Databases: Still Great for Many Tasks

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August 5, 2013 Deadline
September 2013 Issue

Desktop Databases: Still Great for Many Tasks

“dBase LLC is very excited to announce the new and updated version… dBase Plus!”

When I received an email announcement that dBase Plus 8 had shipped, compatible with Windows 8, I had to double check that the press release wasn’t a hoax. As a teenager, I loved experimenting with dBase III. Sure enough, dBase is back, trying to compete against Microsoft Access and FileMaker Pro.

Easily one of the five most important personal computer applications of all time, dBase was the best database engine and development platform for many years. It spawned great competitors, too, from “clones” like FoxPro and Clipper to innovative databases like Alpha Five, Clarion, Revelation and Paradox. Even today, the many applications on your smartphone likely use SQLite, a relational database with tables similar to dBase IV of the 1990s.

While Ashton-Tate’s dBase was not the first database, it was the “killer app” that made it possible for skilled users, consultants and programmers to quickly develop everything from accounting software to point-of-sale systems on (somewhat) affordable personal computers. Along with Lotus Development’s 1-2-3 spreadsheet and MicroPro’s WordStar, a business owner could computerize most common office tasks by 1984.

What made early database systems special was that they didn’t require mastering difficult programming languages to accomplish basic tasks. Alpha and Revelation users could create complex database solutions without a line of programming code. dBase didn’t require programming, but the xBase language could do some amazing things. As with most computer tools, the more you learned about dBase, the more you could do.

Today, relatively few computer users use Access or FileMaker to create custom solutions.
Instead, we purchase applications that use databases while hiding the complexity. For example, address books, the most common form of database, ship ready-to-use with new computers and smartphones. An average computer, tablet or smartphone likely has a half-dozen or more databases, from the address book to the calendar app. Even email software relies on databases to organize the messages and attachments.

The thought of creating a custom database might never occur to most people; their basic needs have been met. Recognizing the changing market, Microsoft no longer includes Access with the basic Office suite; only Office Professional includes the Access database. This is an unfortunate trend, but similar to the declining interest in macros for customizing Word and Excel.

Databases make managing almost any business easier and more efficient. As a freelance writer, I created a simple database to track manuscript submissions and publication histories. Originally, I thought a simple spreadsheet would suffice, but there are now more than 100 contacts in the database. I might send a query to five or more publishers or producers. Sorting and searching within an Excel workbook of spreadsheets became tedious, while querying the database is quick and easy. Instead of trying to use a calendar, address book, and several spreadsheets, all my writing data are in one database.

Databases can be thought of as tables of information, similar to spreadsheets with rows and columns of data. In fact, Microsoft Excel offers some database features because sometimes a spreadsheet is the best way to store and analyze a table of data. However, when tables of data have complex relationships or when you need to perform complex searches on data, a dedicated database offers more power.

A large corporate network or a busy website might rely on an “enterprise class” database from Microsoft, Oracle, IBM or the open source community. These databases tend to use the Structured Query Language (SQL) to manipulate data. Most websites I design rely on SQL databases to store content and user information. Even the free open-source database platforms MySQL and PostgreSQL commonly used for Web development require technical expertise to install and maintain. Creating forms and reports requires learning additional programming tools.

What most of my clients need to manage their businesses or non-profits are desktop databases. When developers complain about FileMaker or Access, they likely are comparing these desktop databases to their enterprise brethren. Sometimes, the right tool isn’t the most powerful: it’s the easiest to use.

“Desktop database” describes a self-contained database system that is affordable and suitable for creating small solutions. These systems are ideal for one to five users, such as a small business owner or someone with a home office. Access and FileMaker are the leading desktop databases, and realistically the only two choices for non-developers. As the dBase email reminded me, other database platforms are available, but these are not simple and finding assistance when you encounter a challenge is nearly impossible.

I’ve taught students and customers how to create practical and useful database solutions in a few hours, with no programming required. You don’t need to create a solution from scratch, though.
FileMaker and Microsoft provide good example databases, which users can customize to meet their needs. Example templates include project management, inventory tracking, customer relationship management (CRM) and resource scheduling. Great online communities support both FileMaker and Access, too. There are hundreds of user-created template databases available online, from donation tracking to wine catalogs.

Comparing Access and FileMaker, I consider Access more powerful. If you learn to develop Access applications with Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), you likely can learn programming in Visual Studio. Also, you can use Access as a “front-end” to SQL databases, so you can scale-up from a stand-alone solution to a networked database.

FileMaker has never matched the power of Access, yet FileMaker meets the needs of more people. As an experienced programmer, I find designing forms and reports easier in Access. Non-programmers, though, seem more comfortable with FileMaker’s layout editor. FileMaker embraces its role as the database for “normal” users.

There is no version of Access or dBase for the Mac or iPhone, though there once was dBase and FoxPro for the Mac.

As an Apple computer owner, I use FileMaker Pro 12 to create database solutions. FileMaker databases work on the Mac, Windows, iPhone and iPad. With its built-in Web server, up to five people can use a FileMaker Pro database at once, allowing me and my wife to share data, though FileMaker is installed on only one computer. That saves a small business significant money.

I encourage readers to visit the FileMaker website (filemaker.com) to learn more about desktop databases.

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