Infocom, the preeminent publisher of interactive fiction (formerly known as adventure games), is invading the business market with Cornerstone, which it touts as "the sophisticated database system for the non-programmer." However, although overflowing with the features and functions you would expect in a relational database management system (DBMS), Cornerstone has some unpleasant aspects as well.
A single Cornerstoe database can hold up to 120 files, and each file holds up to 8 million characters. Each record in a file is comprised of up to 160 fields totaling no more than 4000 characters, although this can be expanded through the use of subrecords. All records are variable length--the program uses only as much storage space as needed.
Each field holds a specific data type. For example, a numeric data type holds only numbers and provides up to 15 decimal digits of precision. A string data type holds up to 255 characters. An especially useful data type, called "derived," performs arithmetic, statistical, and financial functions just like a spreadsheet.
Perhaps the most sophisticated--and useful--feature of Cornerstone is "multivalued attributes." This allows a single field to hold several entries. For example, if you are tracking a company, you can create a field named "contacts" and then list several people. Even better, you can go back and add more people to the field at any time.
The text editing function supports word wrap and automatically opens up lines when needed. Individual fields can be created and deleted at any time. The program also provides complex search criteria including wildcards, ranges, exact matches, and the logical operators AND, OR, and NOT.
Cornerstone includes a powerful report generator with full-screen design capability. It lets you save up to 255 formats and can transfer data between MailMerge, Lotus 1-2-3, dBase II, pfs:File, and other programs using DIF, SDF, and ASCII files.
The tradeoff for this flexibility is speed. DBMs are notoriously slow, and Cornerstone is no exception. A hard disk system is definitely recommended for both speed and storage capacity.
Cornerstone is menu driven, although advanced users can take advantage of several shortcuts to invoke functions. Unfortunately, using Cornerstone menus is a lot like navigating through the underground caverns in Zork: you get lost, confused, trapped, and frustrated. The menu terms are sometimes ambiguous, and invoking some functions requires more intuition than intelligence.
Comprehensive on-screen, context-specific help and an excellent set of manuals ease the pain of learning Cornerstone. A Beginner's Guide leads you through a 10-lesson tutorial.
Customer support starts out well for the first 90 days, offering free telephone hotline support (you pay for the call) and free replacement of defective disks. After that, you are on your own. However, for a steep annual fee of $150, the extended support plan provides free program upgrades and up to five problems (Infocom calls them "incidents") solved by customer support. You pay for the call and for subsequent incidents.
Overall, Cornerstone is a well-conceived database system packed with features. It has several drawbacks that prevent us from giving a blanket recommendation, but its flexibility, marvelous multivalued attributes, and outstanding report generator make it a top contender in the DBMS marketplace.
Products: Cornerstone (Data base management system)