Beyond Q&A

Q&A is the best database program Iíve ever seen. Itís easy to learn, costs little, and includes a word processor. You can make Q&A perform many fancy tricks, by using the customize menu and macros. By choosing "A - Assistant" from the main menu, you can even teach Q&A to understand English, so you can type commands in ordinary English instead of using function keys. On a scale of 1 to 10, Q&A deserves a 9 ó and I havenít yet found a system that deserves a 10.

Q&A has a few weak spots. If they bother you, explore Q&Aís competitors instead.Ö

Reflex

Reflex is a database program that lets you view the data in five ways: it lets you see a form view (a filled-in form showing a record), a list view (a large spreadsheet showing the entire file), a graph view (a graph of all the data), a report view (a report on the entire file, with subtotals), and a crosstab view (a table of totals for statisticians).

Reflex can show you many views simultaneously, by dividing your screen into windows. As you edit the view in one window, the views in other windows change simultaneously. For example, if one window shows numbers and another window shows a graph, the graph changes automatically as you edit the numbers.

Reflex is partly a database program and partly a spreadsheet. Many of Reflexís features were copied by Microsoftís spreadsheet, Excel.

Reflex is published by Borland; but Borland has stopped bothering to market it anymore, because the competition from Q&A and other database programs is too fierce.

Relational databases

Reflex is a simple flat-file system, which means it manipulates just one file at a time. Q&A goes a step further: while youíre editing a file, Q&A lets you insert information from a second file.

Software that goes even further than Q&A and lets you edit two files simultaneously is called a relational database program (or relational database management system or relational DBMS).

The most popular relational database programs for DOS are DBASE, FOXPRO, and Paradox. You can customize them to meet any need, because they include complete programming languages.

Another relational database program for DOS is Alpha 4. It lets you accomplish some tasks more easily than DBASE, FOXPRO, and Paradox, but it does not include a programming language.

Windows wars

Recently, programmers have been trying to invent database programs for Windows. Going beyond DOS programs such as Q&A, Windows database programs let the screen display pretty fonts and photographs.

For example, Borland has invented Windows versions of DBASE and Paradox and a new Windows database program called Delphi. Microsoft has invented a Windows version of FOXPRO and a new Windows database program called Microsoft Access.

The most popular database program for the Mac is Filemaker Pro. Itís as easy as Q&A! Itís published by Claris, which is owned by Apple. Recently, Claris has invented a Windows version of Filemaker Pro.

To battle all those new competitors for the Windows database market, the first popular Windows database (Approach) has been improved; and Alpha Software has invented Alpha 5, which resembles Alpha 4 but handles Windows and is also programmable.

Symantec invented a Windows version of Q&A, but Q&Aís Windows version is hated by everybody. Itís worse than the DOS version and worse than all other major Windows databases. If you use Q&A, stick with Q&Aís DOS version.

Though Q&A for Windows is terrible, the other Windows database programs are fine. Hereís the hierarchy:

The easiest major Windows database program to learn is Filemaker Pro. Itís also the least powerful, since itís neither relational nor programmable.

The next step up is Approach. By a "step up", I mean itís more powerful than Filemaker Pro ó it performs more tricks and handles a wider variety of problems ó but itís also more complex (harder to learn & use). Unlike Filemaker Pro, itís relational. But itís still not programmable.

The next step up (in power and complexity) is Alpha 5. Itís relational and also programmable! But its programming language is small.

The next step up is Microsoft Access. Its programming language is bigger.

The next step up is the triumvirate: the Windows versions of DBASE, FOXPRO, and Paradox. Theyíre powerful, fancy, and more than most folks can understand. If you buy one of them, youíll probably admire the big box it comes in, put it on the shelf, and invite friends to visit you and admire your big box, but youíll never figure out how to use it.

What to buy

To make your life easy, get one of the easy database programs: Q&A for DOS, Filemaker Pro for Windows, or Approach. Go beyond them just if your database needs are too complex for them to handle.

Even if your database needs are complex, begin by practicing with an easy database program first, so you master database fundamentals easily and quickly without getting distracted by needlessly complex details.

Complex database programs are like sneakers with untied shoelaces: though their overall design can let you perform amazing feats, youíll probably trip, get bloodied, and have to call in a first-aid squad to help you survive. In computer lingo, the "first-aid squad" is a team of high-priced computer consultants.

To save your blood and avoid high fees to consultants, start with Q&A for DOS. Iíve been using it to run my entire business for over 10 years and never found any need to switch.