One of the stalwarts of the early PC database era has come back from the grave. Alpha Software, which introduced one of the fastest and simplest databases back in the DOS era, has emerged from extended slumber to offer a reengineered product that’s been updated for the web.
The company is in a rebirth. An established desktop database vendor from the 1990s, at one point the company sold over a million copies of its flagship product. But when Microsoft Office swept the desktop market, the company sold itself to SoftQuad in 1997 and eventually faded from view. Richard Rabins, who co-founded the company, bought it back in 2001, and six years later, has released its new product.
The product is branded, anticlimactically, Alpha 5, version 8 (Alpha 5 was introduced over a decade ago). It claims to bring the fun of rapid application development (RAD) to so-called Web 2.0, providing WYSIWYG GUI design and fast report generation without need for tools like Crystal Reports.
It also introduces portable SQL, which is a generic SQL that could be run against any standard relational database. Admittedly, it won’t be as efficient as the native SQLs, but it provides a write-once, run anywhere sort of capability against Oracle, MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, IBM DB2, InterSystems’ Cache, and Microsoft Access or Excel.
It includes its own security framework in case you’re not relying on external systems to set read and write access rights for different parts of an application. Alpha Five v8 will be formally released on April 16.
This one’s really an oldie but goodie. Alpha Software was supposed to be one of those casualties of the Microsoft Office steamroller. It’s hard to believe now, but there actually used to be a competitive market for desktop productivity tools. Before Lotus got into Notes, it was one of Microsoft’s worst nightmares. Ditto for WordPerfect, and if you really want to go back in time, WordStar.
Of course Windows changed all that. As Lotus made a bad bet on OS/2, Excel got a head start and became the de facto Windows standard spreadsheet. Windows also destroyed what was supposed to be WordPerfect’s advantages, which was a blank slate user interface. An then there was WordStar, which used tags and markups 20 years before they became fashionable.
But Alpha’s return from the dead is of personal interest to us. It was one of the fastest and easiest to use of the DOS databases. While dBase required you to learn command line programming, Alpha came prepackaged with ready to go forms and reports. And it made it extremely easy to perform tasks such as auto-filling in of fields.
Windows killed all that. Ironically, while the Windows GUI made PCs easier to use, it ended up dumbing down desktop databases. In came GUIs, out went features. We were all fixated on the flashy look and feel available under Windows, said Rabins.
Gradually all those neat features, such as hot keys that auto-dialed your phone when you hit control-P on a phone number field, or the ability to conditionally pre-populate fields disappeared, or required programming when Windows appeared. Eventually specialized applications like ACT for contact management took over tasks from which desktop databases were previously just fine.
The release of Microsoft Access for Windows delivered the coup de grace. Hailed as easy to use because of the halo effect of Word and Excel, it wasn’t until after hundreds of millions of copies of Office flooded the market that users realized that Access wasn’t as easy to use as it was hyped up to be. As a blank shell, you had to program all the reports and cool features that used to be bundled in with desktop databases. Adding insult to injury, Access didn’t easily scale.
But by that point, the damage was done. Few if any serious rivals to Access were left standing.
What’s interesting is that Web 2.0’s fixation on rich interactive clients have revived interest in many of the programming goodies that flourished under client/server development. Scrape off their skin, and many of the Ajax tools available today look like updated versions of the PowerBuilder 4GL.
So on one hand, Alpha has chosen an auspicious time to resurface. The challenge however is that the world has moved on. Maybe Access is no longer the category killer it once was, but today, web app developers have more choices than ever. It includes low cost or no cost open source tools and open source databases like MySQL.
When it comes to desktop databases, it will be interesting to see if history travels full circle.