I was a Borland barbarian back in the late 80s and 90s and we had a head full of steam and we had a crazy Frenchman steering the ship. See, we’d done a good job at building tools for developers and a funny thing happens when you give useful tools to developers… they build cool stuff that people buy. Steve Ballmer was trying to say this a few years back in a popular video clip, but most folks thought he was just nuts… and sweaty.
My gig at Borland was working on the total and complete Windows rewrite of Paradox which was then a DOS-based relationship database product we’d acquired when we’d bought a company called Ansa. If you were alive and kicking at the time, you knew the database to beat in the late 80s was dBase by Ashton-Tate. Paradox did a solid job of kicking the snot out of dBase by just giving users a modicum of usability. That was the paradox, you see, a database that was easy to use.
It was around the time we were making a lot of noise about our killer new Windows database that Microsoft dusted off some failed database effort, cleaned it up a bit, released it at a way_low price point and dubbed the product Microsoft Access. It came out before Paradox for Windows and, again, it was cheaper.
The Borland Barbarians were up for the fight! YOUR PRODUCT BLOWS AND OUR CRAZY FRENCHMEN IS BETTER THAN YOUR AUTISTIC GEEK. TAKE THAT REDMOND.
Yeah, so, did I mention it was a cheaper product? Like $500 less than what we were charging for Paradox for DOS? That’s a lot of a cabbage. So much cabbage that early Windows database developer overlooked a lot with Access… like… well… it was a piece of crap. Didn’t help that when we finally got Paradox for Windows out there that we totally and COMPLETELY ignored the third party developers (developers developers developers) by providing no conversion path for the DOS Paradox-based applications. Developers were going to need to rewrite their applications anyway, so why not do it for $500 less? Oops.
Lesson learned: Doesn’t matter how crazy your Frenchman is if you’re developers don’t follow your lead.
That was that. Microsoft released many more version of Access. Borland released a bunch of Paradox versions. Paradox never regained anything resembling and lead and eventually sold the whole sha-bang to Corel who, apparently, had a crazy Canadian at the helm. Guess how that went?
Consumer facing databases were no longer chic. The emergence of the SQL behemoths pushed databases down to where they belong: boring, well understood, reliable, and with a bevy of different surrounding libraries that give any number of development environments convenient access.
Yet, I am a database guy. I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I know my information is sitting safely in a database somewhere. Who cares if it’s equally safe in a spreadsheet? I like my records well defined and my tables relational.
The Slashdot article reminded me that there are many small shops out there who are reasonably successful with their niche consumer database products, but the article also forced me to realize that the world which understood what a database application was… is gone. No biggie. It was merely replaced with another term that doesn’t mean much… the web application.
My impression is that while there are great prototyping tools for web applications, we still haven’t seen “the bomb” in terms of great web application development environment. I’m talking about a soup to nuts product where I’m not jumping between Terminal, BBEdit, and any number of browsers just to see if my primal application works on my development machine.
I tend to build my web applications from the ground up, so I don’t know if the likes of Microsoft, Macromedia, or Adode have created easy to use development tools for web that don’t suck.
Maybe you do.