Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 163 / APRIL 1994 / PAGE 53

How to choose a database. (software packages; includes related article on Superbase 2.0 for Windows) (Compute's Getting Started With: Databases) (Buyers Guide)
by Tom Campbell, David English

Now is the second-easiest time to buy a database manager in microcomputer history. The easiest time was around 1979, when you could do one of the following.

1. Buy dBASE II and join a million other programmers who had one the same thing.

2. Write your own database manager.

The state of the art in database managers has improved drastically since then. Now dBASE II has been replaced by dBASE IV 2.0 (Borland, 408-438-8400, $795); another database manager, Microsoft FoxPro (Microsoft, 800-426-9400, $495), has snatched the dBASE crown right out of the hands of the dBASE developer; only a systems programmer gone mad would attempt to create his or her own database manager; and the leading database development language is Visual Basic for Windows.

If you're thoroughly confused right now, well, good. You have a taste of what it's like for professionals in the chaotic world of databse management. Now let's try for a clear answer to the laughably naive question, How do I pick a database manager? The answer, as ocmputer people always love to tell you, depends on your needs. Sometimes, it's painfully difficult to articulate your needs when you're starting out in a new computing endeavor. This article will take the reverse approach of most other database roundups. Instead of listing the brand-name database managers and their features, Ihll break down the most common reasons to use a DBMS and then suggest which ones are best for each job.

1. You have a simple job to get done.

The winners here are both windows progrlams: Approach 2.6 for Windows (Approach Softwar, 415-306-7890, $99 until March 31, then $395) and FileMaker Pro for Windows (Claris, 408-727-8227, $129). Each has good sample applications to get you started; FileMaker even has a separate manual just for the samples. Approach is a Windows veteran and shows surprising depth for such an easy-to-use product. It has a terrific search feature, making reports incredibly easy to produce, and a strong set of drawing tools. FileMaker is a little broader and has full compatibility with its sister Macintosh product.

2. You have a complex job to get done.

If you have a complex job to get done and don't care about dBASE programming compatibility, Paradox for Windows (Borland, 408-438-8400, $149.95) and Visual Basic (Microsoft, 800-426-9400, $199 for standard edition, $495 for professional edition) ar the hands-down winners. As a programmer, I care a lot about how a programming system will feel to me day in and day out over a period of years, and Paradox feels so much better to me than any other DBMS that I can recommend it without reservation. Its ObjectPAL development language is easily the best for creating database systems of any complexity, and its object-oriented user interface cuts the need for extra programming by a factor of 2 compared to, say, FoxPro. Paradox is beautifully designed to handle even the biggest database chores, and it can use dBASE data files as easily as it uses its own. the Paradox documentation is the best language training manual I've ever seen, and there are now lots of good books on Paradox. Paradox for DOS is also an excellent product, but its language is incompatible. If you plan to develop for both DOS and Windows, FoxPro is probably a better choice because you can create versions for both with the same language.

Visual Basic 3.0 isn't nearly as good for the fulltime database programmer and won't do for the person who routinely create large-scale programs, because it doesn't come with the form-building or data integrity tools taht Paradox has. Nor is it as fast in maintaining huge data files as Paradox. But for most people, it'll do the job well. It's simple to learn if you know previous versionf of Visual Basic, and it's relatively inexpensive. Be sure to get the professional edition if you have serious data management chores.

3. You want to get a job programming databases.

If you want to get a job programming datases, your choices are pretty much limited to FoxPro, dBASE IV, and Paradox. The dBASE language, fully supported by both FoxPro and dBASE IV, is relatively easy to learn. It's more rewarding than most languages because you can get a lot done with very little programming. On the other hand, Paradox for DOS is better from a programmer's standpoint because its language is far more productive even than dBASE's, and so is its development environment. This goes double for Paradox for Windows, which employs a very different dialet of the PAL programming language. Paradox has sizable segment of the market, but still much smaller than dBASE's. FoxPro's manuals are terrible if you want to learn the language, and you'll have to spend an extra hundred bucks or so on third-party books. Even though dBASE has much better manuals, you'll still probably want to invest in another book or two if you're an absolute beginner. Both FoxPro and dBASE have another built-in advantage, which is that you can develop programs that run unchanged in either DOS or Windows. Paradox requires that you choose one or other. To sum it up. Paradox for Windows is the most rewarding from a programming standpoint, but dBASE or FoxPro will make it easier to find work.

4. You want to start a small consulting business doing database applications.

Perhaps you want to go into business for yourself, perhaps as a part-time hobby to earn a few extra bucks or as a way to separate yourself from your day job. Database programming is probably the best way to do this, because database needs are so varied and vast. Here, you're facing slightly different issues than in database programming. The popularity of the development environment you choose isn't so important--your clients will seldom care whether you use Paradox for Windows, dBASE, COBOL, or an abacus to get the job done, as long as it's a better solution than they had before. You need to factor in ease of use and the ability to create programs you can distribute.

Here the term ease of use doesn't refer to how easy the product is to learn, as it so often does. Instead, it refers to how quickly and conveniently you as a programmer will be able to create professional-looking applications or to customize ones you've created. Here again, Paradox and Visual Basic are comfortably in the lead unless you're an experienced dBASE programmer. if that's the case, FoxPro has a better implementation of the dBASE language than does dBASE, but dBASE has a massively better applications generator.

5. You want to get the most out of your BASIC programming skills.

If you're already a BACIC programmer, Visual Basic 3.0 is the only game in town (forget 2.0, which doesn't have database capabilities). Visual Basic or Word Basic programmers get extra points. Access (Microsoft, 800-426-9400, $495) is pretty good, too, but it's more expensive, and the tuntime (which lets you distribute your Access programs to people who don't have Access) costs an extra $500. Ironically, Visual Basic is better for BASIC programmers because it offers much more access (sorry) to onscreen controls such as text edit fields and scrolling lists.

6. You're just interested in learning the state of the art.

If you want the Ferrari of databases, choose Paradox for Windows. It's not the most popular, but its language, database, form, and report design tools are years ahead of the pack. Because it's so capable, you can charge a premium for your programming skills if you're a Paradox for Windows pro; you get a lot more done per hour than with dBASE or FoxPro, so your increased wage is still money well spent from the client's viewpoint.

7. You want to sell a custom DBMS you're planning to create.

One of the best ways to make money using DBMS is to apply the focus of a personal interest to database management. If you run a pet store and have found that turnkey database applications don't work very well in your field, you might want to put your computer literacy to work by creating a better DBMS and sell it to other pet store owners. It's probably best to stick with dBASE or FoxPro because there are lots of third-party dBASE code libraries you can customize. If you're already a Visual Basic programmer, though, go with it. However, be sure you know the costs of a runtime package up front. For Visual Basic, it's free. For Access, it's $500, bringing the list price of Access plus the runtime to about a grand. For FoxPro, the total is closer to $1,500. For Paradox, it's another $500.