Special Report on Business Computing: Spoils to the victors of a later data game: Database management packages have been suffering a crisis and a transformation, to cope with hardware advances, writes Chris Naylor

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FOR many computer users the database is the very raison d'etre of their machine. If they did not need to maintain a database of any sort then they would probably question the need to have a machine at all. Under these circumstances, the choice of a suitable database management package could hardly be more important.

Yet, after so many years of relative certainty in the matter, the question as to which database management package you should buy appears to have been thrown into confusion; and you might well wonder why this is.

For nearly 10 years the certainty was that if you wanted such a package, you should buy Ashton-Tate's dBase or some acceptable variant. Acceptable variants were Clipper, the dbase-compatible compiler from Nantucket Corp, or foxBase, also a dbase-compatible compiler, from Fox Software. Apart from the intrinsic merit of these packages, the common advantage was that they all used the same file format for their data and used a version of the original dbase programming language in which to write the application's code.

This meant that, in theory, each one of these packages could read and write the data files produced by the other; and each one of them could, to a degree, execute the others' programs. All of this helped to make any transition and data migration between packages so much safer and easier that it helped to protect the user's most vital investments of all - his data and his own individual programs.

In the process, the trio of Ashton-Tate, Nantucket Corp and Fox Software constituted a threesome which most observers described as the heavyweights in the database management scene.

So: what, if anything, has gone wrong with this happy and stable picture? Something strange must have happened because last year, Ashton-Tate, the firm that started it all, was acquired by Borland. More recently, Nantucket has been acquired by CA Computer Associates and Fox Software has been acquired by Microsoft.

Essentially, the cause of the upheaval almost certainly lies in the technological advancement of hardware. Processors have become more powerful, graphics have become more detailed, memories and hard discs have become bigger; and they have all continued, year after year, to become cheaper and hence more readily available to everyone.

But why, when this process has been going on for as long as the computer has existed, has it caused problems for database management packages now?

The answer is that dbase, and all of its immediate derivatives, were plain-DOS, text-based, packages which worked well but which were not exploiting all that could be done with today's powerful hardware. And when, in 1990, Microsoft launched Windows 3.0 it became plain just what could be done and newer vendors, who had not necessarily been so active in the traditional dbase-compatible field, stepped more quickly into the breach to do it.

A prime example of this is Software Publishing Corp with its Superbase 4 Windows. This is a database management package that exploits Microsoft Windows 3.0 working environment together with the capabilities of modern machines to give a database management package which is not only more attractive than any previous plain-DOS, text-based, database management package but which also does a great deal more.

Prime amongst the extras that Superbase 4 does is the ability to design your own applications from within a Windows-style environment in such an easy fashion. These applications also present the opportunity to incorporate features which previous plain-DOS, text-based, database management packages could barely even have hinted at.

Each of these packages will offer the same easy-to-use design methods for your application, the same elegant user interface for that application, and the ability to incorporate graphics images.

Were does that leave the traditional, plain-DOS, text-based, dbase-compatible, database management vendors? Essentially, trying for a suitable response.

The main players in this market are all supporting the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in its attempt to define a new database language standard, based on the old dbase language, and which will be generically known as the xbase standard. This is intended to ensure compatibly between xbase database management products. The idea is that, with a new xbase standard allied to new Windows-style products, the newcomers to the database management arena can be seen off.

Given the technical difficulties in making a product that exploits the potential of Windows and remains dbase-compatible, the question is simply whether such products actually will come quickly enough.

For the history of the computer industry tells us that users, like data, have a preference for migrating to where the best application packages are now rather than to where they might be promised in the future.