How To Choose A Home Data Program
Whether or not you realize it, you've probably created and used data bases hundreds of times: every time you filled out a form for a doctor or employer or bank, or bought a new address book. Data base software for personal computers can make the creation, maintenance, and access of data files—information processing—far more efficient.
Have you ever sat near the reference desk of a public library and watched people do research? There's usually one scholarly looking gentleman with eyeglasses perched atop his head, a chewed-down pencil stub behind one ear, and crumpled yellow reference slips falling from his pockets as he looks in the card catalog.
Evolving Methods Of Research
As the computer begins to offer new ways to sift information, however, the techniques of these scholarly gentlemen may eventually become a thing of the past.
Doubtless, computer terminals with improving search software will continue to proliferate in public libraries, airports, department stores—anywhere information needs to be processed.
Our awareness of these data bases is focused on the data itself, not on the software necessary to store and search for it. Once we've learned how to use a particular data base, we tend to forget about the middleman, the data base software.
But if you're thinking of changing the way you file personal information by setting up a data base on your home computer, you may want to consider what kind of software will best suit your needs.
There is some confusion about what the term data base actually refers to. It is often used interchangeably to mean both the software used to store the data and the data itself.
Technically, data base means the information itself. A data base manager (a computer program) controls and processes that data. It's the manager that you can buy, and that's what we'll be discussing here. The data base is something you enter yourself—a list of your library books, for example.
Impulse buying is rare among software shoppers. Unless there's a two-for-$5 bin, the consumer is usually very cautious, finding out as much as possible about the software before a purchase.
It's especially important to determine your needs prior to purchasing a data base manager. "Maybe that seems too obvious," says Steve Bellinghausen, "but a lot of people don't do that."
Bellinghausen is distribution manager for Professional Software, Inc., publisher of DataPlus-PC, a recently released data base manager for the IBM-PC.
A Consumer's Quandary
How do consumers go about matching their needs with an appropriate data base program? In the past, retailers have helped. "Hardware and software dealers traditionally have performed some kind of consulting role to end users," says Bellinghausen. "As new products and companies flood the market, that's becoming increasingly difficult to do."
Bellinghausen describes a scenario where the unprepared consumer walks into a computer dealership and says he needs a data base manager. The dealer points to a flashy display and tells the customer that it's the best-selling data base on the market.
So he buys it, only to find out that the program does far more than he'll ever need from it, and he's probably wasted a few hundred dollars. "You don't need a sledgehammer to drive a thumbtack," says Bellinghausen. "Or vice versa. You don't want to go the other way, either."
Though it may be easy to end up buying data base software that does more than the consumer needs or not enough, Bellinghausen thinks that asking yourself and the retailer a few simple questions can prevent that. "The consumer should be sharp enough to figure out what he wants to do with it," he says.
Let's look at some of those questions.
An Electronic Filing Cabinet
How many different files do you anticipate creating? If you're buying a data base manager for one use only, like cataloging a stamp collection, this isn't important. But some data base managers allow you to store only one file on a disk. So if you have several small files, you may be wasting disk space if you buy a program with that restriction.
How large do you expect your files to be? With even the most limited data base manager, you can always create new files if you run out of space. But if you have to do any kind of search, you may not be able to merge your files and run a search on the complete file. Try to estimate your storage needs generously.
What provisions does the data base manager make for defining the individual fields (sub-sections) within each record? Most programs allow you to design the format for each record, to designate how many fields per record, how many characters per field, whether letters only or numbers only or both will be allowed, and so on. Though each data base manager has its limits, a few packages are extremely limiting.
Will you be needing complicated sorts and searches? Most home applications don't require anything very intricate. But if you want to do more than, say, alphabetize, or retrieve by city or state, you'll need a more powerful data base manager.
How about printing reports? You probably want some kind of printer capabilities, which all data base software has. But the extent to which you can design specialized reports varies. Anticipate your future needs.
Remember: You should be able to have all your questions answered either by examining the outside of the package, reading the software documentation, or asking specific questions of the dealer. If you're planning a substantial investment in a data base manager, it might even be worth writing to the publisher if you can't get an important question answered.
A Few Bonuses
Though it's not absolutely necessary, it can be helpful to have a data base that is compatible with a word processing program. The reason for this, believes Bellinghausen, is that mailing lists are "far and away the most widely used application."
Another feature that few data base programs offer is the ability to go back and change field specifications after you've already entered a number of records. To illustrate the value of this, let's set up an imaginary file, a personal mailing list.
Addressing The Problem
It would seem like the best way to set up a file structure for this application would be to imitate the way that an address book is arranged: one line (field) for name, one for street address, one for city, state, and zip, and one for phone number. Maybe an extra line in case the address runs long.
You then specify that each field can accept both alpha and numeric characters, and allow ample characters per field. You transfer all the information from your address book and various scraps of paper lying around on your desk at home.
Then in November you start thinking about sending Christmas cards. You remember that little notebook that you've used to keep track of cards sent and received over the last five years.
At this point it becomes clear that you should have specified extra fields in your address file for the Chrismas list. Also, it would have been nice to have specified fields to keep track of birthdays.
If your data base software does not allow you to go back and add new fields to existing records, your options are to either set up a new file and reenter all of your records, or keep one set of records in a drawer and one on a disk.
Making It Easier
"I used to use data base software on my Atari," said one home computer owner we questioned. "But now I just use a word processing program to keep track of names and addresses."
Your data management needs may not be extensive enough to warrant buying a large, sophisticated data base manager. Or maybe there are some specific applications you could use data base software for, but don't want to take the time to work with a multipurpose data manager.
An alternative to generic data base programs—those that require you to set up your own files—is application-specific data base software.
Batteries Included offers such a series for the Commodore 64. At $29.95 each, these "mini-data bases" offer tailor-made filing systems ranging from Electronic Address Book to Recipes to Audio/Video Catalog. Eight different packages are currently available.
No one could call data base software faddish. After all, it facilitates one of the fundamental computer functions—information processing. And, in one form or another, data bases have been around for a long time, albeit in low-tech forms like filing cabinets and boxes of index cards. Data managing software offers a fast, effective method of storing, sorting, and searching all kinds of information.