Nuts & Bolts
There's no doubt that computers are great at processing, storing and retrieving data. But, as the saying goes, computers are only as smart as their owners. And unless you have the proper database program and know how to use it, you and your company are likely to suffer from data deficiency, the malaise that comes when you're unable to easily track customers, suppliers and products.
Database programs were invented to make processing your data relatively simple, so you can accomplish the more important task of analyzing it. In case you doubt the importance of such information, think of this: Database programs can tell you when and where you ship your most popular product, show you how to target potential customers, allow you to keep clear and concise records about the products you're building, and more.
For this column, we've reviewed the top three Windows 95-based database programs: Lotus Approach 97, Microsoft Access 97 and Corel Paradox 8 (formerly from Borland). All three are relational databases, a step up from flat-file systems, allowing data to be viewed in many different ways. Because relational databases store data in the form of a table (much like a spreadsheet), they have few limitations about how data is related or how it is used. This lets users be creative when analyzing their information.
Additionally, all three programs have add-ons or enhancements for publishing data to the Web, an increasingly important feature as the popularity of the Internet and intranets continues to rise.
Cassandra Cavanah is a contributing editor of Portable Computing Direct Shopper magazine and has reported on the computer industry for nine years.
Lotus Approach 97 is the database program included in the Lotus software suite called Lotus SmartSuite 97. Similar to Microsoft Office, SmartSuite includes a word processor (Word Pro), spreadsheet program (1-2-3), presentation application (Freelance Graphics) and personal information manager (Organizer), as well as a multimedia tool called ScreenCam. This means that Approach works extremely well in the SmartSuite environment, and users of these programs would likely benefit from choosing this database. This program can be purchased as a stand-alone item, but Lotus' dedication to team computing makes Approach a good addition to any company that utilizes a network to group project teams together.
Approach is easy to install and work with. Lotus includes what it calls SmartMaster applications that allow users to begin working with an existing database, such as inventory management or invoice and order tracking, and even a Surf the Net database that catalogs favorite Web sites. Approach can be used to display data from all popular database formats, including dBASE, Paradox, DB2, Oracle and other SQL sources. This means you can import data into Approach and re-work it to generate reports or analyze data.
Approach's Internet capabilities include functions for saving an Approach file straight to the Internet or an intranet, or translating it into an HTML file and publishing it to a Web server. Advanced users can also build interactive programs that connect in real time to data within Approach by using popular Web browsers. This allows you to publish sales data on your Web site to give your roaming salespeople easy access to the information.
It's Simple...Yet Difficult
Until recently, Paradox was a product owned by Borland, a formidable name in the software industry and maker of some of the most successful software developing programs around (including C++ and Visual dBASE). Corel, the company that owns WordPerfect and the WordPerfect Suite 8, has taken over the marketing and development of Paradox, presumably to maintain its consumer-oriented focus. Still, Borland will continue to provide Paradox with its Borland Database Engine. This means the guts of the program are extremely strong.
The first impression I got upon opening this program is that users won't be overwhelmed with too much information or too many choices. I immediately opened one of the sample databases provided and began working with it. Within minutes, I had saved it as an HTML file and had even selected specific colors for the background and text and viewed it from within my browser. The process was seamless and simple, an easy way to publish basic database information to the Web.
But when it came time to manipulate the data in the file or to create an entirely new database, I had to refer to the manual and take a good, hard look at the process. Of course, it's necessary with all database programs to refer to the manual often when creating something completely new. Even with help from the manual, however, I often felt lost in this program.
As a Microsoft Office user, I suppose I'm predisposed to prefer Microsoft Access over the competition. And, if I hadn't had so much trouble during the installation process (the CD-ROM it came on was apparently scratched or dirty), I would likely be raving about it. I can tell you that, once installed, it ran like every other Office 97 program I've ever used--there were plenty of wizards to easily create the database you need. Microsoft goes way beyond its competition by including database types you might never have thought of but will find useful (asset tracking, music collection and charitable contributions, for example), as well as those that are very pertinent to small-business owners (such as inventory control, expenses and contact management). Microsoft's manual is also the most user-friendly of the group. It explains in plain English what a relational database is, giving examples to help users see the benefits. Here's an excerpt: "For example, you may want to combine information from an Employees table with an Orders table to create a report of total sales per employee for the past month. The two tables share one type of information, in this case the employee ID number, but otherwise maintain discrete data. Storing data in related tables is very efficient because you store a fact just once, which reduces disk storage requirements and makes updating and retrieving data much faster."
In addition to wizards that help make database creation easier, there's built-in assistance that can anticipate the kind of help you'll need and give tips as you go. With Access, it's also easy to share information: You can easily link data from one Office product to the next or utilize e-mail to send Access information to whomever you want as an Excel worksheet, HTML table or text file.
Of course, Access also includes plenty of Internet capabilities, including the ability to easily format and publish a database to either an intranet or the Internet.
Many of you may already have access to a database program that you got when purchasing a suite (such as Microsoft Office or Lotus SmartSuite) or an integrated program (like Microsoft Works), that you have yet to put to work. Why not take some time to familiarize yourself with the power of a database program? At their basic level, these programs can help you organize and track elements of your life (for example, a home inventory or music catalog), while at their highest level, they'll give you the ability to manage your business in ways you never thought possible.
ACCESS 97 (Excellent)
List price: $399
Pluses: Extremely intuitive, tight integration with Microsoft Office
Minuses: Bad installation due to damaged CD-ROM (worth noting as this columnist has experienced similar problems with other Microsoft products)
APPROACH 97 (Excellent)
List price: $105
Pluses: Strong Internet functions, fairly intuitive
Minuses: Could benefit from more templates
PARADOX 8 (Good)
List price: $129
Pluses: Easy Web publishing
Minuses: Lacks intuitiveness
New and notable software.
- Quarterdeck RealHelp: If you've ever suffered a system crash while working on an important document, you'll see the merit in Quarterdeck's new RealHelp. This product is designed to detect and fix most Windows 95 conflicts before they become serious problems. The program is always working independently of the user, monitoring potential problems and automatically fixing them. The program has several key components, including Crash Defender, Smart Disk (to monitor hard-drive problems), Hardware Diagnostics, Conflict Detector (offering solutions to hardware and software conflicts) and more. With RealHelp, users also get a one-year subscription to http://www.TuneUp.com. This Quarterdeck Web site features software updates, patches and drivers for keeping your PC running smoothly. For more on this product, visit the company's Web site at http://www.quarterdeck.com or call (800) 683-6696.
- The Workers Compensation Consultant: As your business grows, workers' compensation premiums grow with it. Often, this expense goes unnoticed until it begins to put a significant strain on your bank account. The Workers Compensation Consultant from International Business Saveware helps businesses optimize company structure, compensation, job descriptions and duties, accounting, and other elements that influence the calculation of premiums. This Windows program retails for $115. For more information, visit http://www.ibsaveware.com or call (604) 873-2331.
- BusinessWorks 12.0: If your company has outgrown its accounting software, it might be time to check into State Of The Art Accounting Software's BusinessWorks. This modular accounting program is for small companies with revenues ranging from $1 million to $5 million. BusinessWorks claims to fill the gap between basic entry-level products (such as QuickBooks) and complex, high-end systems. This version features reporting flexibility, user-designed forms, built-in backup and restore, and increased data capacities. It also supports multiple-warehouse and serial-number tracking. You can purchase four basic components--System Manager, General Ledger, Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable--for $1,295. For more information, call (800) 854-3415 or visit http://www.sota.com