Data base programs not 'smart' enough

Computer file

April 27, 1992|By Richard O'Reilly | Richard O'Reilly,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

The recently announced plans of Microsoft Corp. to buy Fox Software, publisher of FoxPro 2.0, is good news for a large group of data base users.

It enhances the long-term future of the dBASE-standard of data base programs, which account for the majority of personal computing data bases.

The dBASE standard was developed over the last decade by Ashton-Tate through several versions of its data base program, culminating in dBASE IV.

Last year, Ashton-Tate was purchased by one of its rivals, Borland International, publisher of several competing data base programs, including Paradox. Borland also settled lawsuits between Ashton-Tate and Fox by agreeing that Fox Software and others can publish programs compatible with dBASE. Thus the rights of Fox Software and others to publish programs compatible with dBASE were assured.

Initial fears that Borland wanted Ashton-Tate only to kill dBASE as a competitor to Paradox were unfounded, and Borland has just introduced its first revision of dBASE IV.

Now, with Microsoft's marketing might behind FoxPro, a dBASE-compatible data base development program, competition is certain to bring major improvements to this venera

ble genre of data base software.

FoxPro 2.0 ($795) has won most of the data base comparison tests since it was introduced last year. It is a powerful development system, offering more speed, more features and a more sophisticated programming language than dBASE IV.

It provides a good system of on-screen forms, allowing users to specify exactly what data they want to retrieve. The complex task of selecting portions of data from several related tables, or lists of information, is easily accomplished once you learn to navigate the forms.

As powerful as FoxPro 2.0 and the others are, there is a lot of room for improvement in ease of use.

None of these products are really designed for ordinary users, the people who actually need to store and retrieve data. They are really designed for programmers who create the specialized data base applications that ordinary computer users work with.

Perhaps ease-of-use will get a boost with Windows versions of FoxPro, dBASE and Paradox, all of which should be introduced later this year.

But accomplishing tasks that seem obvious and simple can be quite difficult with today's data base software.

For example, consider the problems posed by people's names.

A name is actually a combination of first name, last name and middle name or initial. Each part of the name has to be stored separately so that the various Smiths can easily be distinguished from all of the Joneses.

But you surely don't want to address people by the separate pieces of their names. You want to use the full name, properly punctuated with a period after the middle initial if there is one, or with the middle name spelled out, and without an extra space in the middle if only the first and last names are available.

The way you do that in FoxPro 2.0 is to write a program -- a set of instructions that step-by-step tell the computer how to put the parts of a name together.

This is not a problem unique to FoxPro 2.0. In fact, FoxPro's extensive programming language makes it easier to write such a set of instructions than in many rival data base programs.

But the point is that until data base programs become smart enough to do such tasks automatically for their users, they will remain too difficult for all but expert programmers to master.

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