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    New software offers lifeline for all those drowning in data

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver March 23-29, 2004 Issue 752

    The High Tech Office

    Information technologies haven't always gotten us information that we can understand, when and where we need it. But many of us feel as if, more and more, we're drowning in data. And the tools to keep track of all these tidbits of information are not always as useful as we might have hoped.

     Big businesses have masses of data, and one of the biggest jobs of corporate IT departments is managing multiple servers hosting massive databases. More soon on how Vancouver-based Antarctica Systems is pioneering a new way to turn vast piles of data into useful information.

     Individuals have data, too. Often, we end up trying to keep track of names, addresses, e-mail, contacts and more using our e-mail software's address book, or in a Palm or other PDA or in Microsoft Outlook. We may keep other sorts of lists handy in spreadsheets; the new Microsoft Office 2003 recognizes this, finally adding a List Manager function to Excel that the Mac version has had for several years.

     There's been a hole, however, in what's available in between the corporate-level database systems and what's available for individuals, small businesses or workgroups. Professional versions of MS Office include Microsoft Access, but it's not particularly easy for most of us to get up and running.

     Intuit, makers of products like Quicken, QuickTax, and Quickbooks, has a tradition of providing easy-to-use business software. QuickBase is an online database that is easily customized to meet the needs of small groups. Databases can be built from scratch or by using one of the templates, allowing ordinary people to build their own custom applications without needing to rely on IT professionals. Users can be empowered to view the database, enter data or to customize the database and to automatically receive e-mail notification of changes. More advanced customization is possible for users familiar with XML, Visual Basic, Perl or Java languages. As well, Intuit maintains a network of developers to build customized QuickBooks applications - from US$249 per month for 10 users.

     FileMaker's FileMaker Pro is a step up in power from QuickBase while still offering mere mortals the ability to build their own database applications. As with earlier versions, the just-released version 7 is available in Windows and Mac flavours (starting around $400); both platforms use the same file formats, so data can be shared between users without problem. New to version 7: enhanced XML import and export making it easier for FileMaker data to be accessed from other applications. A new Container field makes it easy to store any kind of file within the database; anything from graphics to videos to Excel spreadsheets can now be included. Multiple windows allow users to have different views of their data on-screen at once.

     As with QuickBooks, FileMaker Pro data can be stored online, allowing for easy access. Unlike QuickBooks, you don't have to put your data online. It's easy to query your data: fill in a form to find just the data that meets your criteria, but it can be awkward to save a query for future reuse.

     A separate Mobile version ($75) allows Palm or Pocket PC users to work with recent-version FileMaker databases of up to 50 fields. Users can view and edit data, which is kept in sync with the parent database, but cannot create new databases on the PDA.

     Neither QuickBooks nor FileMaker Pro offers the analysis power or automation available in Microsoft Access (to say nothing of the high-end corporate data reporting or analysis tools). But many smaller groups may find one or the other of these products striking a better balance between features and ease of use. 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan