Data base programs: plenty of varieties

November 23, 1992|By Phillip Robinson | Phillip Robinson,Knight-Ridder News Service

I need your help on this one. A month ago, I started taking a close look at data base manager programs, which make sense of the piles of electronic data that companies and individuals keep.

Paradox 4.0 was out, Borland also had a new version of dBASE, Microsoft had purchased FoxPro, Microsoft's own Access data base manager was almost to market, friends suggested Panorama was the easiest Macintosh data base, I had calls and visits from other people, such as those using DataEase and Approach. I wanted to sort all these programs into categories, to make sense of the profusion. I wanted to know what to advise people to use, and I was ready to juggle a dozen programs.

However, when I opened the data base closet, a mountain of program boxes fell on me. There are more than 100 data base managers on the market. I've been running programs, watching demonstrations, listening to experts, reading reviews, and I'm puzzled. How does anyone know which is the best?

Over the next few months, I'm going to keep coming back to data bases until I've covered the . . . bases, if you'll pardon the pun. I'll look at important trends and products and summarize the results when I can. I'll be looking at things such as programmability, ease of use and connections to larger computers.

As I do, I'd like to hear from you if you swear by -- or swear at -- particular programs.

This week I wondered about the importance of the "cross-platform" feature that is starting to appear in some data base managers. These are programs that let you work on both PC and Macintosh; better yet on PC with DOS, PC with Windows and Macintosh; and best with Unix workstations as well. (I don't know of any that also reach to other personal computers such as the Amiga.) Cross-platform is important not only if you deal with customers and colleagues who use other systems, it is becoming a necessity for the many local area networks that connect PCs, Macs and work stations.

FileMaker Pro 2.0 (Claris, $399, (800) 544-8554) was one of the first data base managers to catch my cross-platform eye. FileMaker has long been a standard for Macintosh owners. (Remember that Claris is a part of Apple.) Version 2.0 is the first to also appear for Windows.

The cross-platform ability here starts with "binary compatibility of files." That's computerese for "the data bases I work with on the Mac are exactly the same as the ones I work with on the PC -- I can load a Mac-created FileMaker data base into a PC running FileMaker, change it there, save it to disk, then load it back into the Mac without any extra file translation work or any loss of data, formatting or anything."

Does that sound like a natural, take-it-for-granted kind of feature? Dream on. For most of personal computer history, moving a data base, or a word-processor or spreadsheet document, for that matter, from one computer or program to another meant export commands, filters, translators, import commands and even then a complete loss of formatting and often a "truncation" (lopping off) of some important data. FileMaker Pro 2.0 is ready to run on networks, licensed for up to 25 users, in fact, so that "binary file compatibility" can be employed immediately.

FileMaker is a cross-platform program in another way: a GUI with a CUI. Its "Graphic User Interface" (the icons, windows, pull-down menus) sticks to a "Common User Interface" (putting the same commands in the same menus, using standard dialogue boxes and mouse controls). The Mac version looks and acts just like the Windows version. Learn one, and you can immediately use the other. That's money in the bank because training is often the most expensive part of a computer.

Incidentally, that GUI CUI makes for easy data-base creation. (The first step in managing a pile of information is designing the logical boxes and shelves to organize it upon.) Everything springs from the graphic menus and icons. FileMaker Pro makes changing a data-base design easier than with most other managers. FileMaker isn't a relational data-base manager (those are programs that can pull information from more than one data base at a time), which means it pales in power beside Paradox and other sophisticated systems.

But I'll save ease-of-use and relational power for another week.

Omnis 7 (Blyth Software, $250 for users and $1,250 for developers, (415) 312-7100) also has cross-platform operation.

Omnis comes in two versions, a data base manager and a manager that also has a programming kit. You see, not only are there data bases (the piles of information) and data base managers (the tools to dig through those piles), there are also data base programming kits (the factories to make the tools to dig through those piles).

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