Database dressing: Find a program tailored for you

In a perfect world, a database program would fit its user like a glove. It would export and import data effortlessly and reshape itself to fit new needs.

But that hasn't happened yet. Database administrators often encounter program glitches they cannot resolve and must do a lot of extra setup work because the software is not intuitive. Anyone who doubts how frustrating this can be should read some of the cries for help on forums such as www.dbforums.com.

In an admittedly imperfect world, database programs ought to work despite user ignorance. To test whether they do, I recruited four volunteers and asked them to work with two database applications per week for about a month.

I assigned the volunteers two tasks: First, use a program-supplied template to enter their own personal contacts. Second, reinstall the contact list on a template they themselves had built and customized.

Users A and B had a good knowledge of computers and had worked with databases before. Users C and D had spent little time with computers except for occasional Internet browsing or e-mailing.

Over the month of tests, I asked all the users to work with each program for three days, spending a minimum of two hours per day. They were not allowed to talk with each other about the programs, although I did help them when problems arose. Afterward I interviewed them about their opinions of the various programs.

I assigned a grade to each program based on the users' comments about overall ease of use, ease of customization and ability to import data with diverse file extensions. Ease of input and cataloging matters just as much as the ability to disseminate data.

Also factored into the grade was each program's ability to automatically generate HTML and to output Extensible Markup Language and Extensible Stylesheet Language. I awarded a bonus for Mac OS-Microsoft Windows file compatibility.

All the database programs were relational, which means that two separate files sharing the same database field will automatically synchronize whenever the field is altered.

I had hoped Lotus Approach 9.8 would be part of the review, but IBM/Lotus did not send the product because there were few changes from last year's Approach 9.5.

Of my test group, users A and B liked Microsoft Access 2003 best. Although it was only an insignificant upgrade from Access 2002, I liked it best, too.

Access was not the easiest of the four programs to use, particularly for someone new to databases, but the learning curve was gradual. Users C and D said they wished that Access would start out with a wizard as the other programs did. But user D, who is slightly more familiar with technology than C, managed to find the templates and database wizard in only 10 minutes.

Although C and D disliked the multiple steps needed to activate a wizard, they nevertheless considered Access the most powerful for building their own templates. So did A and B.

Unlike the wizards in earlier versions of Lotus Approach and FileMaker Pro, the Access wizard had a more professional and less consumerish feel. The user only had to specify the types of fields needed and establish an identification key for the database.

I was impressed by how fast Access 2003 ran, compared with the 2002 version. Microsoft Corp.'s Jet 4.0 database engine now alerts the user to vulnerabilities that can be fixed by downloading a software patch. My first Access transaction, for example, paused until I had downloaded Service Pack 8 to repair a security error.

Error scans

Also new in Access 2003 was automatic scanning for errors and incorrectly entered data. Access 2002 was XML-compliant; Access 2003 could fully import, edit and export XML data files.

Another advantage was interoperability with other Microsoft applications. Access was the easiest database program to use when importing or exporting Excel and Word files. As Microsoft Office is the most widely used productivity application, that makes it simpler for disparate users to share databases.

The side window in Access 2003, also present in all Office XP apps, gives users a way to get to other apps in the suite without disturbing what they're working on in the main window.

Microsoft has done a good thing by getting rid of the somewhat intimidating members-only attitude in earlier versions.

Just because FileMaker Pro 6 wasn't the first database program in the review doesn't mean it's been dethroned from the top spot, which it has held for the last four years in GCN Lab database reviews.

My volunteer test panel was unanimous in calling FileMaker Pro 6 the easiest database to use.
FileMaker started out with a descriptive wizard, which immediately gave a new user access to business, education or home templates. In contrast, Access offered only personal or business templates.

The education option had extra criteria'for example, templates for faculty and student records and for event planning. FileMaker users at educational institutions also have put their custom templates online for many other purposes such as library collections, employee vacation tracking and the like. See Harvard Medical School's collection, for example, at www.powerfiles.com/index.html.

The other database programs in the review had something fairly similar, but users C and D happened to be teachers and liked FileMaker's education templates the best.

Users A and B said they liked FileMaker Pro 6 but were partial to the interface of Access 2003, particularly for importing and exporting data.

FileMaker Pro 6 also could generate HTML and XML but, unlike Access 2003, FileMaker could not import or edit XML.

Makeover needed

Like Corel Paradox 11 and Lotus Approach, FileMaker Pro 6 hasn't had much change to its interface over the last five years and is due for an aesthetic makeover.

Database software revamps, as shown by the last five years' technical advances, can greatly improve ease of use and make a product far more appealing to new users. Microsoft, for example, has constantly changed Office with the intent of uncovering all the hidden options in the toolbar.

The lack of a modern interface was the biggest fault the volunteer testers found with Alpha Five Version 5.

Its new database genie made the software almost as easy to use as FileMaker, and Alpha Five could keep up with Access in template count and export and import functions.

But Alpha Five seemed more like FileMaker Pro 5 back in 2000'no Web capabilities except for exporting XML. It lacked an HTML generator, couldn't import and edit XML, had a manual 'check Web for updates' feature and wasn't Mac OS-compatible.

Nor was it a favorite with the test panel. Users C and D said they liked the fact that everything operated through a wizard, or genie in Alpha Five lingo, but they considered the other database programs more professional. They said they began to feel lost outside the New Database Genie mode.

User A liked the ease of learning XBasic, the programming language behind Alpha Five, but also sometimes got lost in the interface.

User B didn't like anything about Alpha Five because of the poor Web features and lack of Mac OS compatibility. B also thought Alpha Five should make the destination folder the C: drive by default, instead of forcing the user to specify it.

Such small inconveniences separate the good databases from the great. After spending a little more than a month with the software, I think Alpha Five will show more potential in the next version or two.

But it has too many genies and still isn't very user-friendly. For example, Alpha Software should put a button on the toolbar to reach the New Database Genie more easily and to cut the number of initial steps to reach the genie.

Also, there's a crying need for a tutorial similar to that in Corel Paradox. And Alpha Software should better segregate the script editor from the genies. It's far too easy for first-time users to get into the script editor and give up in confusion.

Corel Paradox 11 looked identical to Version 9. There were no changes to the template wizard, which was in a startup window and ambiguously titled 'New From Project.'

Paradox's interface is still paradoxical. It doesn't have the same XML features as Access although it can export a document in XML, and it isn't Mac-compatible like FileMaker.

None of the testers liked Paradox much, except that creating a new document always defaulted to a wizard'unlike older versions of the software.

Paradox, in contrast with Alpha Five and Approach, is robust enough to serve fairly large infrastructures, although dbforums.com had many reports from disgruntled users about glitches in Paradox 11. It seemed to generate more confusion than any of the other database software in this review.

So the perfect-glove fit isn't quite perfect yet. Maybe users won't have to wait much longer before they can rapidly and easily tailor a database expressly for their own needs. We'll look for improvements next year.

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