Updated July 3, 1997

By Bruce Brown --

PC Databases: The Black Hole of Software Design

(Note: BugNet Editor Bruce Brown's recent column dubbing Claris the "worst Windows 95 software designer" struck a responsive chord with many, who nominated their own losers. Out of this emerged a broader picture of the general database category...)

FOR A DECADE, the database application category has been the poor stepchild of the software world. Study after study has show that databases are the least used of the major program categories.

This has always struck me as exceedingly curious, considering the way that databases leverage the advantages of the computer, and compliment the weaknesses of the human. I mean, how many people have more memory for detail than they can use?

Well, now I think I know the reason why many PC owners don't use a database: the category boasts the worst designed applications in the entire software universe.

We've already detailed many of the shortcomings of Claris FileMaker (see BugNet, March 1997), so we'll only mention one more here. For reasons that only Claris can answer (but won't - the company has refused to respond to repeated inquiries on the issue), FileMaker for Windows 95 strips out all formatting when you cut and paste.

Virtually every other Windows program known to man -- including programs that only have rudimentary text handling capacity -- allow you to cut and paste text with basic formatting like boldface and italic. But not Claris FileMaker. It removes all formatting, both coming into and going out of the program. Perhaps this "feature" is designed to preserve FileMaker's much touted cross-platform compatibility with the Mac?

Then there's the laughable case of Folio Views. The ability to sort records is as basic to the database concept as punctuation is to word processors, but believe it or not, Views can't sort records in a found set. The clearest indication of just how serious this limitation is can be seen in the duplicate mailing we have been receiving from Folio Views for years (assuming they use their own product for their own mail records).

Then there's Microsoft Access, the database that claims the largest installed base since it comes free on most PCs, but which is actually USED by very few people. One reason may be the limits in indexed fields. When last we checked, any field in Access containing more than a few sentences couldn't be indexed, and therefore couldn't take advantage of the main advantage of a database - the ability to quickly find information.

The same limitation afflicts Approach, a once promising flat file database that was purchased and then mummified by Lotus -- although it's bug/fix performance is the best of the databases in this month's BugNet Chart (sorry, the chart is only available to BugNet subscribers).

We could kick venerable dBase around some too, but what's the point? The program is a software ghost town -- just like its current vendor Borland -- and Borland's other big database product, Paradox, seems headed for the same fate too.

Then there's Oracle, the program that has inherited much of dBase's mantle in what the corporados euphemistically like to call "the enterprise."

The clearest indication of Oracle's horrible design is the fact that it has begun to bundle consulting services, training and "round-the-clock telephone assistance" with its new Oracle 8. The cost? A mere $450,000 for a 20-user version (no, that's not a typo).

The most seriously crippled PC database program, however, may be Lotus Notes. Version 4.5 of Notes is riddled with poor design, from the user interface to the basic functionality of the program. Two examples:

  • there are no keyboard shortcuts for what is probably the most common task in any database -- browsing from one record to the next. This forces the user to return to a View to move from record to record, which in turn maximizes the problems created by another poor design decision...
  • there is no way to display a formatted field in any View. This means that if your database contains formatted text, you won't be able to see it in the Views that allow you move from record to record. Lotus makes you fly blind through your own database!

Taken together, these fubars, oversights, sloppy conceptualizations and clueless assumptions make databases generally a black hole of database design.

If word processors were designed as poorly as databases, we'd all still be using typewriters.

Note: The link image for this story is from Bill Arnett's Web Nebulae Page, which features some of the coolest images on the web. Click here to visit The Web Nebulae.

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