Tech Life My Frenchman is Crazier Than Yours

I Miss Databases

A recent Slashdot article about, yet another, start-up founded by Stanford grads got me reminiscing about the good old days when databases where in your face… and… fun?

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.


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.

7 Responses

  1. kristen 20 years ago

    let’s look at two components of this sentence.

    1. “Microsoft”

    2. “easy to use development tools for web that don’t suck”

    now really. what do you think?


    i’m surprised to see you on aim right now, though i am definitely too nervous to im you.

  2. jared 20 years ago

    i’ve had pretty good luck with the Macromedia suite. granted i’m not a hardcore web app developer. hell, i’m barely a web page developer. but over the years i’ve spent a bit of quality time with a number of IDEs and i’m pretty satisfied with what Macromedia has to offer. i’d suggest trying it yourself though; the 2 cents of a random web junky may not mean much to some people ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Rands, have you heard about gnome-storage? It’s a project for the Unix GNOME desktop environment which basically replaces the standard filesystem hierarchy with a database. Theoretically, this is going to lead to a system where, instead of making a directory for all of your Tarantino movies, you keep an alias to a query for all movies made by Tarantino.

    Whether this will work in the long run is another thing entirely, but if you like databases, you might find the project interesting.

    Also, I thought I was the only person who desperately wanted to IM rands but was too nervous.

  4. mr_ripley 20 years ago

    Ummm gnome-storage is a cheap knockoff of spotlight. I just checked it out and it really can’t be compared to spotlight in my mac os x tiger preview.

    Hey Michael Cowpland wasn’t a crazy canadian, he was a lucky borderline criminal one. Btw Corel = Cowpland Research Laboratory, yeah he was a pompous fool too, but it was fun working there.

    I know it’s “hip” to hate anything made by microsoft Kristen, but microsoft make the best dev. tools in the world, hands down. Has a matter of fact it’s the integral part of their success, they attract developper, who in turn make microsoft-only software. Linux hasn’t cracked that equation yet, apple just started and it show, look how many mac os X application were created in so little time.

    To answer Rands question, you’re right there isn’t much of the integrated tools for macosX the only great one is wingide2 by wingware but that’s still beta ( and python only ). There’s also basaone by basasoft, which seem promising if they manage to make further version.

    On windows you have the great activestate’s komodo, not to mention borland very own jbuilder 2005.

    Adobe and macromedia is mainly for designing, unless you use coldfusion, which is becoming rare.

    Anyways is Rands some kind of rock star or something? Nervous to IM? We’re in high school? I remember I found this blog because I was searching for the derfcity webcomic and ended up on jerkcity, so I don’t understand the whole star status for rands… Unless this is some sucking up from Rands’s lower minions he manage.

  5. mr_ripley: gnome-storage isn’t a search tool, though. It’s intended as an interface to the filesystem.

    All I know about Spotlight is what’s being publicly released, but it seems to be just a fancy search tool. gnome-storage is intended for integration into both applications and the desktop.

    More importantly, it handles file access, too. It’s a database-driven filesystem layer. Seems to me that Spotlight is the cheap one here.

    GNOME Storage may not be as far along as Spotlight at this point, but it’s much more ambitious, from what I can see. Dismissing it as a cheap knockoff, especially when neither is yet released and they both started around the same time, seems rather premature.

    Not to mention that Microsoft has been promising essentially the same thing since NT4, and BeOS was using a database FS before OS X existed. A database interface to filesystem metadata is not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination. I simply mentioned the one that was most familar to me.

  6. mr_ripley 20 years ago

    Michael : Don’t worry I don’t think people are going to sign up to typekey just to flame. I think one of the bigger problem of all this is that linux is a moving target. There are really great intelligent and highly talented linux programmer, but this is mostly wasted when another team of highly intelligent programmer decide to make a design switch which the other team depends on. Gnome is a moving target, gnome is constantly moving and evolving, every single version of gnome is different in a way, how are you supposed to target that and invest money and time to constantly support this. This fact explain mostly why KDE is moving faster as far as support goes, because Qt is tested, Qt is working, Qt is stable, all programmer can safely target it and feel safe.

    Developpement is the life blood of a computing platform, microsoft know this, they move slowly carefully making sure not to change any api, the result is that a windows 95 application still work to this day, offering an enormous amount of application which attract enormous amount of users, Apple really got it with mac os X, just look at it, it was released in 2001, 3 years later we got many version of photoshop, 2 version of MS office, quark, shake, ungodly amount of audio tools etc. and this is a brand new mostly not backward compatible operating system, it has more commercial consumer app then linux ever had in all it’s history. Simply amazing, and I can safely say Xcode and the well designed cocoa and carbon framework driving the X is a big part of this.

    Djur : Yes indeed, gnome-storage IS a search tools with a new way to store data ( which I think is safe to say will never see the light of the day, I don’t expect a postgres driven gnome anytime soon ). If you read the info from the GNOME cvs, you’ll see that it’s the basis for Sutra, which is the codename for the METADATA gnome system.

    Well your not giving spotlight enough credit, it’s good you remember BeOS, because Pavel Cisler ( BeTracker ), and Dominic Giampaolo ( BFS creator ), both work for Apple, hell they were at the WWDC 2004, spotlight is nothing more than a more elaborate BFS. Yeah it’s a small world. So I think it’s safe to say gnome-storage is a knockoff of tiger spotlight, which is a knockoff of BFS the most advanced filesystem available until Tiger comes along. Seriously Linux hasn’t even settled the filesystem they want to use, is it ext2, ext3, reiserFS? I don’t think gnome will come and settle the issue, they will build a database abstraction on top of that to store metadata, which will be incredibly slow I think. I really enjoy linux, but it really need to be critized sometimes, and this is one of those time.

  7. Michael Pearson 20 years ago

    At the risk of having this degrade in to yet another flamewar, I have to agree with mr_ripley on the Microsoft thing. Rands hinted at their, as far as I can tell, standard tactic before the turn of the millenium: release cheap, accessible but shitty software, and slowly improve it as time goes on and the market demands. Now that it’s 2004, I’m seeing products which I’m finding it hard to find serious fault against. MSVC, from what I’ve seen (but mainly heard), is the current IDE of choice for win32 application development.

    In the interests of honesty, however, I’m a Linux developer with semi-popular code “out in the field”, as it were, so it’s a bit hypocritical for me to be talking about MS development tools. This could be, perhaps, because I’m essentially a “hobbyist” developer: I’m no longer working towards a timeframe, and I’ve become so comfortable with a particular environment (4 xterms) that the effort required to actually learn a new environment exceeds any long-term gain I would receive from it.

    Rands: three years ago I would have said “Macromedia’s Coldfusion”, although I’m not sure how true that is now. It didn’t handle the creation of databases, though, merely the presentation and business logic.