'Old-fashioned' database program worth checking

First published in Business in Vancouver: The high-tech office column, August 7, 2001

by ALAN ZISMAN (c) 2001

Once upon a time, people referred to the Big Three applications for personal computers: word processors, spreadsheets and databases. Each was represented by a major application, which made a fortune for its developers. A decade or so ago, the big three were Wordperfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and Dbase.

The first two still have their fans, though neither defines its product category anymore. But while there are still some businesses running old Dbase code, that application is no longer among the living. In fact, while most of us make use of a word processor and many use spreadsheets, few create databases.

Still, the need for databases -- organized collections of data -- hasn't disappeared. And most of us actually do access databases regularly, whether checking our personal address books or shopping online. We just don't do it by running a database program on a personal computer. In fact, personal computer database programs can be hard to find. Both Microsoft and Corel include such programs in their office suite packages, for example, but only in the higher-priced "professional" versions. And they're right. Microsoft Access and Corel's Paradox are not programs that define ease-of-use.

Instead, we make do with the pre-made databases in personal information manager software, using address books in Outlook or Palm Desktop, or more sophisticated contact management products such as Vancouver-based Multiactive's Maximizer. We may use a spreadsheet to build other simple databases, something that Microsoft recognized with the List Manager feature in the latest Mac version of Excel but, ironically, left out of the newest Windows version.

Intuit, makers of the widely used Quicken personal finance software, thinks there's still a place for a simple database. Unlike Access, Paradox or the old Dbase, you don't need to be a programmer to create a database with their new Quickbase. And because it's online at www.quickbase.com, your data is accessible anywhere you have Internet access.

You can keep your data private or, since it's online, you can choose to make it accessible to other users. You can limit who can access your data and you can allow access as "read-only" or with the ability to add data. Nicely, your first three databases are free. After that, pricing depends on the number of databases posted, starting at US$15 per month for access to up to 15 databases. Only the creator of the databases pays; there's no charge to access the data.

Intuit is trying to make it easy to get started. They've posted sets of templates for commonly used small business, corporate and nonprofit databases. Once you've created your database's structure, you can copy and paste data, perhaps from a spreadsheet. Since your data is viewable through your Web browser, you need no special software to access it and no special training.

Being able to share your data adds to its usefulness; databases can be shared among informal workgroups in your company, between vendors and customers or with your clients. Outside of work, they can be useful for clubs, teams and other organizations. The data is encrypted, so it should be reasonably secure, though I wouldn't trust it with anything that really ought to be kept private. And since Quickbase makes nightly backups, data on its servers is probably safer than on many of our own computers.

Quickbase lives up to its promise of being easy to use and affordable. It's not going to replace big corporate databases, but its ability to provide controlled access over the Internet has lots of potential uses.

I was able to quickly sign on and post a listing of the 732 articles I've had published in my 10 years as a computer journalist. You can see it at www.quickbase.com/db/69msmfpd.


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