Classic Computer Magazine Archive ANTIC VOL. 5, NO. 2 / JUNE 1986


Database with "time-card" metaphor


Zoomracks is an untraditional, text-oriented database. The name is derived from the information format that simulates cards stored in racks. The user can "zoom" in and out of details contained on the cards.

The rack emulation provides a visual approach to data manipulation that helps in learning to use the database. The documentation says the metaphor for this product is similar to a rack of employee time-cards. You take a card out of the rack (zoom in) to examine or change its details. Then you can put it back in the rack (zoom out) or copy it to another rack.

If you have an application that requires storing information on various-sized cards, Zoomracks can provide a method to control and organize it. Since Zoomracks has no numerical functions, it follows that there are no mathematical capabilities available for report processing. Instead, Zoomracks emphasizes flexible data manipulation and control.

The various elements of Zoomracks are not exactly the same as those in more traditional databases, so the names are somewhat different. Fields, the smallest blocks of defined data, are called "fieldscrolls". The reason for the different name is that fieldscrolls do not have a defined length. Any field may be up to 80 columns wide and up to 250 lines long.

There can be 27 fieldscrolls to a "quickcard," which is analogous to a record. Quickcards are grouped into "zoomracks" which are similar to files. Nine zoomracks may be in memory simultaneously, and up to nine files may be displayed on the screen. By allowing records on the screen from various files, merging and comparing data between zoomracks can be easily accomplished.

Another way to look at this system design approach is to consider the file directory as a rack of Zoomracks files. A Zoomracks file is a rack of quickeards. A quickcard is a rack of fieldscrolls and a fieldscroll is a rack of text. This is how Zoomracks achieves much of it flexibility.

A typical sequence for viewing specific data might start by finding the file in the directory rack, then loading the file into another rack. This is followed by finding the record or quickcard in the file and displaying that card on the screen. This will show the first line of all the field-scrolls for the quickcard. And each fieldscroll viewed can be expanded to a maximum of 250 lines.

Zoomracks also features user-definable 2-key macros for performing repetitive tasks or for entering repetitive data strings. The database is RAM-based so the total number of records or files accessible at any time by the system is dictated by the amount of available RAM. When Zoom-racks is loaded into a 520ST with TOS in RAM and no desk accessories, there are 56,000 bytes for data files. A "gas gauge" at the bottom of the screen graphically shows RAM usage. Menu options are always present on the screen.

The documentation consists of a 128-page instruction manual, with a table of contents but no index. It takes a step-by-step approach to presenting the features of this software and is designed for both the ST and IBM versions of Zoomracks. The main difference between the ST and IBM versions appears to be in the keyboard and in the Atari's use of the mouse device-though no GEM graphics are utilized here.

An online tutorial and a few demos are provided, along with sample data files. There is also an online Help function that provides additional information about your current system location. The demos are interesting and provide a view of many of the system's features, but they cannot be implemented in your own files without first reading and understanding the instruction manual.

The tutorial is informative and gives a feeling of the flavor of the program, but learning by doing seems to be the best approach with this package. An undo command is present for most features-although the Atari's handy [UNDO] key is used only during text editing.

Other keyboard choices act as toggle switches where the same key again reverses the previous action. Moving through the racks, cards and fields can be accomplished by several methods-keystrokes, function keys, macros, or the mouse. Fieldscroils can be added, modified, moved, or deleted. This allows for reformatting an entire file quickly and easily. As a matter of fact, fieldscrolls and quickcards can be moved between zoomracks just as easily.

In a typical Zoomrack session, once the directory rack is loaded, the program searches for a rack called MACAUTO and, if found, it is loaded. The menu choices  appear at the bottom of the screen just above the memory gas gauge. But they are only there as a visual reminder of specific modes of operation that can be chosen. You are not limited to them. Processing choices can be made by using the appropriate key, macro, function key, mouse or by pressing the [RETURN] key to select the menu choice currently displayed in inverse text.

Compared to other databases, it is easy to reformat a quickcard and add or delete fields. Files may be sorted or searched on any field. A major limitation is that only one sort field or search string at a time is allowed. There is a cut-and-paste feature that allows quickcards, field-scrolls, or partial fieldscrolls to be cut into a buffer and pasted into another location. Text within a fieldscroll may be formatted by use of the field editing features-a small text processor that can handle about three pages of correspondence per fieldscroll.

Printing controls provide for one or all quickcards to be printed. Ranges can be printed by moving the desired range of records to a temporary rack. While this may seem like a tedious task it is actually not difficult to do. Labels may be printed in the same manner by resetting the height and width of the display screen, which changes the height and width of the area to be printed. In keeping with the visual interface, this method allows the user to see what will print ahead of time. Files may be loaded or saved in Zoomracks format, or in ASCII format for sharing data with other programs. Further processing of the ASCII files will probably be required to get the data in a format another program could use.

Zoomracks could be used for any list application that does not require the math abilities of other databases. All fields are considered to contain text data. Mailing lists, appointments, any type of notes, or a client list are applications that instantly come to mind. A field can be three pages long, and racks can be merged and printed. Therefore, form letters in one rack can be individualized with the names and addresses from another rack and then printed.

The Zoomracks user interface is well thought-out, providing visual clues for most of the processing options. But, as in any system where complex actions are possible, learning the many uses of Zoomracks is a time-consuming process. My only problem occurred when writing to a full disk during the rewrite. No message appeared on the screen, but records were lost and the last record written to disk was incomplete. The file could be loaded, but trying to process the last record crashed the system. By using the quickcard copy feature and the macros, I saved valid records to another file.

The most confusing part of learning and using this system is that there are often several ways to make the same processing choice. The user is faced with choosing between using keystrokes, or a function key, or a macro, or pressing [RETURN] to process the current menu option- or pointing and clicking with the mouse. While this provides a high degree of flexibility to the experienced user, it makes learning the system more difficult.

When files are loaded to a rack, the files already in memory may be moved to another rack. This means you'll have to search through several racks to find a file. A helpful function here would be a directory of files in memory along with the directory of files available on disk. The program could be made much stronger by the addition of mathematical and numerical functions along with the reporting methods that numerical fields require.

The 520ST has a friendly [HELP] key and Zoomracks provides online help screens specific to the current processing function, but the [F4] key is used to toggle the help function on and off. I assume this is for the sake of compatibility between the ST and the IBM keyboard which lacks a [HELP] key.

Zoomracks is not copy-protected. Quickview Systems say they plan to constantly improve and upgrade this product and they welcome user input. Also, Quickview plans to provide upgrades at a nominal charge to current users.

If your applications require mathematical capabilities, you will not find a use for this database program. But if manipulating and organizing text can solve your problem-and you are interested in a new visual perspective on database processing-Zoomracks could be just what you are looking for.

Quickview Systems
146 Main Street
Los Altos, CA 94022
(415) 965-0327