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The Desktop Database Race

About ten years ago I worked for a company that had no database for booking in customer returns – this shocked me. The company was disributing hardware and everything was done in a book. How strange – actually insane. At that stage Microsoft Access was and possibly still is the market leader in desktop database development.  It would have cost a mere 500 U$ to develop and build our own database but there we were writing everything down on paper. Let me tell you, I put something together over the course of one day using Lotus Approach. Lotus Approach was powerful enough for our needs, was extremely quick to use and more importantly, the learning curve without using Lotus Script was only about one day. The guys had really put together a very smart package for the SOHO user. It would have taken a couple of days to have learnt and applied Access to this problem.

Noticing that Approach no longer was being supported, had some serious drawbacks in the professional development market, I did some research on what the current market had to offer. (2000). I was not surprised, as a newbie, to find quite a few packages out there all contending with Access. Although I had the full Access development kit, I did not feel comfortable with it. I often felt that Microsoft were not asking their users what they wanted which could prove to be a huge problem later on. Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft products are excellent – their user base should be proof enough. But what if there is a better product out there?

And there was…. Alpha Five, Version Five.

Besides all the spam I get from the makers of Alpha FiveCool, now in version 10, I doubt that they are a big company. Version Five, which was their first Windows version took quite a few knocks on the many forums at that stage – mostly around stability. I took the gamble anyway and purchased the software licence and found that not one complaint was founded. I had stability problems with A5 because my Windows registry was corrupt – not A5. I had lookups and queries going wrong because I wasn’t doing enough reading on the subject.  Desktop databases are designed to fulfill a need, the learning curve should be short and the package should be powerful. A5 was all of that and more. They use their own language XBasic. They use a scripting language, genies, dialogue boxes and a host of other tools which just make it work.  Brilliantly! Best of all, I felt comfortable with the package.

To remain competitve they roll out new versions fairly frequently and I found myself purchasing version 6 and then 8. Not nine, but this December version 10. They market aggressively and have in practically every aspect cornered the desktop database market from an ease of use point of view.  Alpha Five has a very loyal support base. They have a very bright and competent software development team. They communicate with you. You know who they are. They hit the forums and find out what you want. The company is headed up by two brothers, both carrying admirable credentials. Frank Rabins is the Co-Chairman and Selwyn Rabins is the Chief Technical Officer.

Alpha Five is not only for desktop database development – from version six they started focussing on the web. Version 8 was the first version I felt which had the necessary legs to be competitive in the web application market.  (note that all their versions are desktop and from 6, desktop and web).  For the professional developer their pricing is also very attractive. I found A5V5 plus the 20 user runtime licence very expensive – but no longer. Version 9 has been advertised at some ludicrously low pricing and you get a credit when purchasing version 10.

Alpha Five has made a product which allows a developer to build an app from ground up very quickly. Once the framwork has been completed one need not spend hours on writing code or worse, debugging code.  

Strong Points

There are numerous articles on the web covering this and indeed Alpha’s website as well but would like to list them according to what I found:

a) I needed to make a ‘Service Entry’ database which needed a table for customers, check-in, warranty look-up (serialised, which meant that you need one table for serial numbers, customer invoice numbers and invoice date – pre-populated and could be populated with new data ), repairs administered, and check out.  All in all the database used six tables which took about thirty minutes to set up – which included setting the constraints, relationships etc.
b) the forms took about 4 hours.
c) the search, sorting, filitering, emailing (ah, that wonderful Genie) about two hours

i) The genies makes most of the work a breeze.
ii) The action scripting takes the fun out of been a programmer but this what RAD is all about isn’t it.
iii) Deployment – with runtime files about 20MB. A lot of this had to do with my form design. To make them look really pretty I had to use a third party image editor.
iv) and now for the coup de gras – operations. Append, Post, Delete.  Click, click, click – done. You won’t get this anywhere else, believe me.

All in all a complete database, professionally done – in about 8 hours.

I just love this application. You may not feel like calling yourself a developer when your project is completed but isn’t the objective of the exercise all around Rapid Deployment.

Try Alpha Five at their website – for newbies, 30 days is more than sufficient time to experiment, learn and write out the cheque/check. 

Actually I think I am going to buy version 10 right now….

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