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Background

A database program is a program that manipulates lists of facts. It can store information about your friends & enemies, customers & suppliers, employees & stockholders, students & teachers, hobbies & libraries. It puts all that data about your life and business onto a disk, which acts as an electronic filing cabinet. Then it lets you retrieve the data easily. It can generate mailing lists, phone directories, sales reports, and any other analyses you wish.

It’s called a database program or database management system (DBMS) or information retrieval system. The terms are synonymous.

File-cabinet jargon

In an old-fashioned office that lacks a computer, you’ll see a filing cabinet containing several drawers. One drawer’s labeled CUSTOMERS; another drawer’s labeled EMPLOYEES; another drawer’s labeled SUPPLIERS. Each drawer contains alphabetized index cards.

For example, the drawer labeled CUSTOMERS contains a card about each customer; the first card might be labeled "ADAMS, JOAN"; the last card might be labeled "ZABRONSKI, JILL". The first card contains all known information about Joan Adams: it contains her name, address, phone number, everything she bought, how much she paid, how much she still owes, and other personal information about her. That card is called her record. Each item of information on that card is called a field.

If the card is a pre-printed form, it allows a certain amount of space for each item: for example, it might allow only 30 characters for the person’s name. The number of characters allowed for a field is called the field’s width. In that example, the width of the NAME field is 30 characters.

Each drawer is called a file. For example, the drawer that contains information about customers is called the customer file; another drawer is the employee file; another drawer is the supplier file.

The entire filing cabinet — which contains all the information about your company — is called the database.

A sample file

Here’s a file about amazing students in the School of Life:

Last name: Smith First name: Suzy

Age: 4 Class: 12

Comments: Though just 4 years old, she finished high school because she's fast.

Last name: Bell First name: Clara

Age: 21 Class: 10

Comments: The class clown, she never graduated but had fun trying. Super-slow!

Last name: Smith First name: Buffalo Bob

Age: 7 Class: 2

Comments: Boringly normal, he's jealous of his sister Suzy. Always says "Howdy!"

Last name: Kosinski First name: Stanislaw

Age: 16 Class: 11

Comments: He dislikes Polish jokes.

Last name: Ketchopf First name: Heinz

Age: 57 Class: 1

Comments: His pour grades make him the slowest Ketchopf in the West.

Last name: Nixon First name: Tricky Dick

Age: 78 Class: 13

Comments: The unlucky President, he disappointed our country.

Last name: Walter First name: Russy-poo

Age: 44 Class: 0

Comments: This guy has no class.

That file consists of seven records: Suzy Smith’s record, Clara Bell’s record, Buffalo Bob Smith’s record, Stanislaw Kosinski’s record, Heinz Ketchopf’s record, Tricky Dick Nixon’s record, and Russy-poo Walter’s record.

Each record consists of five fields: last name, first name, age, class, and comments. The age and class fields are narrow; the comments field is very wide.

Database programs versus word processing

Like a word processing program, a database program lets you write information, put it onto a disk, edit it, and copy it onto paper.

In a word processing system, the information’s called a document, consisting of paragraphs which in turn consist of sentences. In a database system, the information’s called a file (instead of a document); it consists of records, which in turn consist of fields.

Since a database program resembles a word processor, a word processor can act as a crummy database program. A good database program offers the following extras, which the typical word processor lacks.…

A good database program can alphabetize, put information into numerical order, and check for criteria. For example, you can tell it to check which customers are women under 18 who have light red hair and live in a red-light district, make it print their names and addresses on mailing labels in zip code order, and make it print a phone book containing their names and numbers. As you can see, database programs are very potent and can be nasty tools for invading people’s privacy!

PFS

Most database programs are hard to use. In 1980, John Page invented the first easy database program. He called it the Personal Filing System (PFS). It ran on Apple 2 computers. He developed it while sitting in his garage.

He showed the program to two friends: Fred Gibbons and Janelle Bedke. The three of them tried to find a company willing to market his program, but no company was interested, so they decided to market the program themselves by forming a company, Software Publishing Corporation.

The program became very popular. Software Publishing Corporation became a multi-million-dollar corporation. It developed improved versions of PFS for the Apple 2 family, Radio Shack models 3 & 4, Commodore 64, Mac, and IBM PC. Today, the fanciest version of PFS is Professional File, which runs on the IBM PC.

The company also invented a word processor, whose IBM version is called Professional Write. It works well with Professional File. Discount dealers sell Professional Write for $142; when you buy it, you get Professional File free!

You can write a memo by using Professional Write and build a mailing list by using Professional File. Then use those programs together to print personalized copies of your memo to everybody on your mailing list.

Software Publishing Corporation has invented an even easier program, called PFS First Choice. It includes the easiest parts of both Professional File and Professional Write. It also includes spreadsheets, graphics, and telecommunication.

In 1988, John Page and Janelle Bedke got bored and quit the company. Fred Gibbons and the rest of his staff hung on but sold PFS First Choice to Spinnaker, which later became part of Softkey; so now PFS First Choice is published by Softkey, which charges just $39.95! Phone Softkey in Cambridge, Massachusetts at 617-494-1200.

Q&A

Inspired by the PFS series, a new company called Symantec developed a similar program, called Q&A.

At first glance, Q&A seems to just imitate the PFS series, since Q&A uses almost the same commands and keystrokes as the first IBM version of PFS. But Q&A understands many extra commands also, making Q&A much more powerful than the PFS series. Q&A handles just two topics — databases and word processing — but very well! In the entire history of mankind, Q&A is the most useful program ever invented! It’s fairly easy (almost as easy as the PFS series), and it’s so powerful that it can handle the computing needs of almost all businesses.

Versions Symantec started selling version 1 of Q&A in 1985, versions 1.1 and 2 in 1986, version 3 in 1988, and version 4 in 1991. All those versions use MS-DOS, which requires that you buy an IBM PC or clone.

Symantec has developed a Windows version, but don’t buy it. Everybody who’s tried it hates it. It requires too many keystrokes and mouse-strokes per task. The DOS version is much easier and swifter. Also, the Windows version consumes 20 megabytes of your hard disk.

After inventing Q&A version 4 for DOS, Symantec wasn’t planning to invent any more DOS versions. But some Germans promised to buy many copies of Q&A if Symantec would make little improvements and spell the word "color" the British way ("colour"); Symantec agreed and called the result "Q&A version 5". Symantec intended to sell it just in Germany; but since so many Americans were curious about it and requested it, Symantec has reluctantly agreed to sell it to any American willing to read British.

Cost You can get Q&A version 5 for just $149 (plus tax and shipping) by phoning Symantec in California at 800-441-7234 or 408-253-9600.

RAM Q&A requires at least 512K of RAM. Q&A runs much faster if you have at least 640K of RAM. To run Q&A version 4 (or 5) with version 4 of MS-DOS (which consumes lots of RAM), you must have at least 640K.

Hard disk Version 4 (or 5) requires a hard disk. If you don’t have a hard disk, you must buy an earlier version instead and use two floppy drives.

Programmable Q&A is programmable, which means you can teach it new tricks.

For example, I taught Q&A how to run my business. Now Q&A handles all my mailing lists, orders, shipping labels, income, expenses, and taxes. Q&A runs my entire life!

I also used Q&A to create the master index at the back of this book.

Gigantic files Q&A can handle gigantic files. Each file can contain up to 256 megabytes. You can divide the file into as many records as you wish and divide each record into as many fields as you wish.

In version 4 (or 5), each record can be as long as you wish, and each field can contain up to 32 kilobytes. Earlier versions restrict each record to 16 kilobytes and each field to 1.6 kilobytes.