Borland's long-awaited dBase for Windows will face high expectations

May 30, 1994|By Lawrence M. Fisher | Lawrence M. Fisher,New York Times News Service

Most long-lived software products engender a degree of commitment among users, but some, like dBase, come to inspire an almost religious devotion.

So when Borland International Inc. set out to convert this venerable product to the Windows format, it took on a considerable task. Nearly three years later, dBase for Windows is scheduled to ship at the end of June.

Along with the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet and the old Word Star word processor, dBase was one of the software products that drove the early success of the personal computer a decade ago.

But although it was packaged in shrink-wrapped boxes and sold alongside those products, dBase was never a ready-to-run application.

The real purpose of dBase is to create custom programs that use a relational database to flexibly link multiple records. A manufacturing company, for example, might have computerized records of customers and their purchases; products and the raw materials needed to make them, and the suppliers of those materials.

By using dBase, a programmer might be able to create a tool that finds new relationships among the company's records.

Originally developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., as a mainframe database language, dBase has never been remotely user-friendly.

Still, it is more approachable than COBOL, FORTRAN and other software languages that preceded it, and thousands of developers have cut their teeth on dBase.

Most used it to create applications for small- to medium-sized businesses, and a thriving dBase community remains wedded to it.

It was the loyalty of those developers -- the "installed base," in industry jargon -- that Borland purchased when it acquired the Ashton-Tate Corp. in July 1991 in a stock swap valued at $439 million.

Ashton-Tate developed the version of dBase that ran under Microsoft's MS-DOS operating system, but had so bungled a series of updates that clones like FoxPro, now owned by Microsoft, and competitors like Borland's own Paradox were making serious inroads. Still, dBase retains over half of the worldwide market for database tools.

Borland quickly produced a new DOS version of dBase that cured the problems that had plagued Ashton-Tate, and announced plans for a Windows version. But that was nearly three years ago, and the delay indicates how difficult it proved to be to create a product that retained compatibility with dBase for DOS, while also providing a compelling new Windows tool.

For six months now, a select group of developers has been experimenting with pre-production versions of dBase for Windows.

One noted dBase guru who declined to be named in this column has dissociated himself from the product, claiming that it may be a good Windows product, but it's not dBase.

If that is so -- meaning that even dBase devotees have to learn how to use it -- that could open the door to competitors like Microsoft's Visual Basic and Powersoft's Powerbuilder.

Others note that while dBase for Windows does contain features, concepts and capabilities foreign to the original dBase, it is also able to run existing dBase applications without problems.

Even better, it is able to convert most of them to the Windows world of point-and-click mouse interaction in a painless, if not entirely automatic process. That is in keeping with the spirit of dBase, which has always been about replacing lines of inscrutable code with simple English commands.

"I'm not sure if it's still dBase," said Bill French, president of Global Technologies Corp., a developer of dBase tools. "I know it's changed because it had to, but at the same time it stayed the same. I don't see any reason why old dBase pros can't get into this, get their hands dirty, and produce something interesting."

Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies, said dBase for Windows should be able to retain the loyalty of most dBase pros while also appealing to less sophisticated users. "There's no question it's still dBase; you can look at it and understand its genealogy and what it's inherited," he said. "At the same time, it's much easier to use."

It would have been a relatively easy matter to implement the old character-based dBase for DOS within Windows, using the pull-down menus and a mouse to perform many of the most commonly used commands.

Indeed, some of the competitors have done just that. But that approach would not have compelled many of the six million or so users of dBase for DOS to switch to Windows -- or justified Borland's considerable investment.

Instead, Borland set a goal of making a product that -- while able to use all the existing dBase commands -- could also create new applications in an entirely visual manner.

The idea was not only to let developers use the inherent power of Windows in the creative process, but also to allow them to capture that same ease of use in the applications they built with DTC dBase for Windows.

"We wanted to create a tool that was the best way to develop Windows database applications," said V. David Watkins, vice president and general manager of Borland's dBase business unit. At the same time, in existing DOS applications, he said, "there are several billion lines of dBase code, and we want to bring that forward into the Windows world."

It is actually possible to create simple forms and programs with dBase for Windows by using the "visual form designer." By selecting items and parameters from the examples provided, and clicking with the mouse, a new user can build useful programs.

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