Just as their other markets start to mature, software companies are preparing for a welcome surge in sales of database programs, as users wake up to their potential and growing ease of use - or so say the software companies that produce the programs.
This is not the first time that a new dawn in database use has been heralded. 'Relational' database programs - so called because of their ability to relate bits and pieces of data from a variety of individual data files - were once seen as the main use for personal computers. The market-leading product in the mid-1980s, dBase, pre-dated even the original IBM PC. But somewhere along the way, word-processing and spreadsheets overtook databases.
Unfortunately, storing data on word processors or spreadsheets meant accepting enormous compromises. You want to mailshot every customer who has bought widget X in the last six months and has a Bristol postcode? Don't use a word processor or spreadsheet program - at least not unless you want to waste a lot of time.
A database program can easily do this - and generally has an inbuilt 'query language' to allow users to write their own applications to automate such tasks. Recent programs also allow users to pull up on screen not only textual data but visual material as well.
Despite their usefulness, database programs have had a bumpy ride. For all three large database software companies - Borland, Microsoft and DataEase - the next few months are critical. Borland's dBase product is due to be released in a long-awaited 'Windows' version in the next few weeks; Microsoft needs to persuade users to move to the third release of its Access product to be launched in 18 months; and DataEase will introduce version 5 of its database program in an attempt to retain its hold on the DOS market and prevent users migrating to Windows-based competitors.
The toughest battle is faced by Borland's dBase product. A cynical jibe in the database business is that dBase has repeated IBM's error with the personal computer itself: creating the industry standard, but without the market domination to go with it.
Earlier this month, Borland announced a substantial operating loss - dollars 70m ( pounds 46m) on sales down 15 per cent at dollars 394m - and heavy restructuring charges (although these mainly reflect problems with its non- database products). Even so, the company has had to invest heavily in updating dBase, its flagship database.
The program was originally developed by a company called Ashton-Tate, and has long had a reputation for being powerful, but slow and unfriendly to use. In the 1980s, as businesses built up their own database applications employing dBase's in-built programming language, frustration mounted at the speed at which they ran.
Two competitors, DataEase and FoxPro, emerged, offering compatibility plus greater ease of use and more speed. Nor were the differences trivial - applications might run up to three times faster.
Ashton-Tate tried to stanch the loss of sales by improving its then current product, dBase III - but the rushed-out new version, dBase IV, flopped initially because of the high number of bugs it contained. The company was forced to continue selling dBase III while it sorted out the glitches and regained customer confidence. This came too late for Ashton-Tate, which fell into the arms of Borland in 1991.
With dBase beginning to regain its former status, the company last year launched a well-received and fast 'compiler', aimed at allowing users to produce stand-alone computer applications written in the dBase query language.
Meanwhile, industry leader Microsoft, having abandoned its own database product in 1987, was forced to buy FoxPro Corporation to fill the gap before it could market a replacement - Access, a database that runs under the company's Windows operating system.
But while Access has been acknowledged as extremely powerful, it has involved users learning a very different way of doing things - and is now already in its third release, as Microsoft fine-tunes it.
If FoxPro stole market share from dBase with speed, DataEase has done so with ease of use - sales last quarter were twice those of dBase, according to a recent market survey. Designed with the help of a dentist, it threw out 'computer- centric' database designs and started from the viewpoint of what the user wanted to achieve, according to Alastair Trickett, marketing director of DataEase International. This has made it popular.
'We've now held the No 1 position in the DOS market for five years,' Mr Trickett says. This is no mean feat for a company that is still much smaller than its competitors, Borland and Microsoft. As with the computer maker Apple - another small company building easy-to- use products - DataEase has built up a loyal following.
Now all three companies are squaring up with new versions of their products. Borland's dBase for Windows will be compatible with the DOS version, but also be 'object-oriented', allowing users to incorporate photographs, video and sound.
Microsoft's Access also boasts a host of new features, as it seeks to consolidate its bridgehead in the Windows market.
But Mr Trickett of DataEase remains sceptical about the move to Windows. DataEase's new version will offer its loyal band of users almost 20 important new features - but not a Windows interface.Reuse content