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The Future of Database Programs

RICHARD O'REILLY <i> is director of computer analysis for The Times</i>

The recently announced plans of software giant Microsoft Corp. to buy Fox Software, publishers of FoxPro 2.0, is good news for a large group of database users.

It enhances the long-term future of the dBASE-standard of database programs, which account for the majority of personal computing databases.

The dBASE standard was developed over the last decade by Ashton-Tate through several versions of its database program, culminating in dBASE IV.

Last year, Ashton-Tate was purchased by one of its rivals, Borland International, publishers of several competing database programs, including Paradox. Borland also settled lawsuits between Ashton-Tate and Fox by agreeing that Fox Software and others can publish programs compatible with dBASE.

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Initial fears that Borland only wanted Ashton-Tate to kill dBASE as a competitor to Paradox were unfounded, and Borland has just introduced its first revision of dBASE IV.

Now, with Microsoft’s marketing might behind FoxPro, which is a dBASE-compatible database development program, competition is certain to bring major improvements to this venerable genre of database software.

FoxPro 2.0, $795, has won most of the database comparison tests since it was introduced last year. It is a powerful development system, offering more speed, more features and a more sophisticated programming language than dBASE IV.

One reason Microsoft was willing to pay $173 million in stock for Fox Software, of Perrysburg, Ohio, is Fox’s pending patent on an ultra-fast data access system it calls “Rushmore Technology.” In some kinds of data access comparisons, the Rushmore system allows FoxPro 2.0 to perform hundreds of times faster than its competitors, including dBASE IV and Paradox 3.5.

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As powerful as FoxPro 2.0 and the others are, there is a lot of room for improvement in ease of use.

None of these products are really designed for ordinary users, the people who actually need to store and retrieve data. They are really designed for programmers who create the specialized database applications that ordinary computer users work with.

Perhaps ease-of-use will get a boost with Windows versions of FoxPro, dBASE and Paradox, all of which should be introduced later this year.

But accomplishing tasks that seem obvious and simple can be quite difficult with today’s database software. For example, consider the problems posed by people’s names.

A name is actually a combination of first name, last name and middle name or initial. Each part of the name has to be stored separately so that the various Smiths can easily be distinguished from all of the Joneses.

But you surely don’t want to address people by the separate pieces of their names. You want to use the full name, properly punctuated with a period after the middle initial if there is one, or with the middle name spelled out, and without an extra space in the middle if only the first and last names are available.

The way you do that in FoxPro 2.0 is to write a program--a set of instructions that step by step tells the computer how to put the parts of a name together. And those instructions must be explicit enough to handle all of the variations that may be encountered.

This is not a problem unique to FoxPro 2.0. In fact, FoxPro’s extensive programming language makes it easier to write such a set of instructions than in many rival database programs.

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But the point is that until database programs become smart enough to do such tasks automatically for their users, they will remain too difficult for all but expert programmers to master.

Computer File welcomes your comments but regrets that the author cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Richard O’Reilly, Computer File, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.


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