There are databases, there are database managers, and there are database application builders. At least the first term, 'Databases', has been grossly misused and as a result small business users are often confused about what it is they need to buy. Start talking to a consultant about a "database" and he might think you want him to build you one, where you're actually looking for a program that will let you build one. You'll only notice the difference when the invoice arrives. DBExpert then is an application builder with a relational database manager built into it. The manager keeps track of the multiple tables, queries, forms and reports that make up a database, also protecting it from human error wherever possible. While the application builder part gives you a splendid array of tools for easily putting together a database that will manage your business, CD collection, catalog or whatever.
DBExpert only comes on two floppies and takes up a tiny 4 megs of space on your hard drive once the install program has finished. It's RAM requirements are understandably slim too. What is truly great about the program in comparison to the other small-business database in the OS/2 arena -- Approach -- are the two user manuals that come with the program.
The "Getting Started" booklet alone is as thick as the solitary user manual that came with Lotus Approach and is illustrated well with screenshots. Geared towards absolute beginners, it steps you through the construction of a sample database with multiple tables, queries, forms and reports. By the end, any user should be able to put together a complex database with table relationships, subforms and more. But this "absolute beginner" lean can be somewhat patronizing to experienced OS/2 users who are simply new to databases. The copious use of exclamation marks, talking-down to the reader and "COFFEE BREAK!" endings might look better in an Anthony Robbins manual, but not a user guide.
The regular user manual adds another inch to this pile of documentation and is very thorough in its coverage. It cuts to the chase, leaving the 'beginner' attitude behind and talks to the mature user right away. This book not only covers the finer details of setting up a database but also comes with a full command reference to be used when writing macros. While using DBExpert, I found no need to hit the help files at all.
DBExpert shares a close resemblance to Microsoft Access, almost to the point of being a clone. The main window (.GIF, 6K) is a notebook with tabs for tables, queries, forms, reports and macros in that order. Plus buttons for creating new elements, opening or designing existing ones. To this end the interface is consistent; you access your tables the same way you access your forms and reports.
With a database application builder the idea is to start by creating tables, the elements that actually store the data in its rawest form. From there on you create queries that define relationships between tables and narrow data down to select ranges, forms that give you a convenient front-end for putting information into the database, and reports that display the contents of the database in formatted and printed form. You can then make the database even more sophisticated and by writing macros that automate data entry, perform complex calculations and more.
Table creation (.GIF, 9K) is easy, with space to define default values, validation rules, formatting of data and more. To assist in indexing and searching, it's possible to define fields of your table as keys, either primary, unique or duplicate. One complaint I have is the small number of data types supported by DBExpert. You get text, number, counter (which starts at 1 and automatically advances with each new record you add, which is handy as an ID field), date/time, memo and bitmap. The bitmap field is all but useless with its 32K limitation, plus I miss the presence of a Boolean type.
Form and report creation were the parts that caused the most grief. The problem is that DBExpert isn't very good at snapping fields and labels and such to just where you want them. You'll inevitably spend ages getting all the boxes to line up flush with each other. But there is some relief if you just want to slap a form or report together quickly -- as DBExpert can assemble a default layout for you at the touch of a button.
Aside from that, DBExpert has excellent form creation tools. With support for multiline entry fields, push-buttons, toggle-buttons, checkboxes, radio buttons, combo boxes, bitmaps and graphs you have a lot of freedom to create some sophisticated stuff (.GIF, 15K). The manual is also very good at showing you how to pull off some of the less obvious tricks -- like filling a drop-down list with items from another table or laying out a set of radio buttons. There's not much room for ornamentation though, a raised edge, sunken bevel and narrow palette of colors is about all you get to dress up the form with.
DBExpert is advanced enough to support subforms (a form within a form) that embeds data from another table (like the itemized entries of an order form) but only functions well in this regard when the subform is set to "spreadsheet" view (.GIF, 12K). Set the subform to its regular freeform layout (.GIF, 10K) and you won't be able to flip through the subform's other records -- it'll be stuck at the first matching record with no way to advance to others. I was hoping for a scrolling "tractor feed" here.
DBExpert is one of a breed of database application builders known as "non programming" databases. What this simply means is that programming is not the major emphasis of the package -- you don't need to be a programmer to create a powerful database. With DBExpert, click, drag and drop is about as much as you need to know. But even these "non programming" database builders will come with a basic scripting or macro language for power users. And DBExpert, being born and raised on OS/2, has Rexx as its native tongue. This Rexx interface, coupled with DBExperts's user interface, gives you a very powerful "visual" programming language right off the bat.
In a matter of minutes you can create a short and sweet macro that performs a simple calculation and updates a table field with the new result. You give this macro a function name and suddenly you can use it everywhere. In a form's design view, highlight a button and scroll down to its "On Push" event in the properties box, enter the name of the function there and every time you click on that button in the form thereafter the macro is run. So for example, if the macro increases the salary field of your employees table by 10%, clicking on the button which you've labeled "Raise salary" will give the employee an instant raise.
Now combine this with DBExpert's Runtime version -- a small program that contains just the "engine" of the database builder but not the power to edit or create tables, forms or reports. Costing $29 per user, this runtime version bundled with a database you've already created with the full version can be cheaply distributed to all employees or clients in your business who need it. It effectively gives you the power to create highly sophisticated standalone applications and distribute them as you please.
DBExpert's native database format is dBase IV -- practically the standard in databases for over a decade now -- meaning that the tables it generates is easily shared with other programs. In addition, DBExpert also claims to support dBase III, Clipper, FoxPro, FoxBASE and delimited ASCII files too. DBExpert can also access and work with Oracle 7, DB2, DB2/MVS and SQL/DS tables too. The catch is that it won't work with them natively, you must have a copy of Oracle 7, DB2 or DDCS/2 already installed for DBExpert to connect to. Without such a setup, I was unable to test this feature.
My experience with DBExpert was considerably more favorable than with Lotus Approach, the key advantages being its full Rexx macro interface and its thicker printed manuals. Like Approach, DBExpert is very graphical and gives you the power to "paint" forms and reports as well as link fields together in a query through drag-n-drop.
The program doesn't pretend to have any modern gadgets such as Internet/Web report generation or file transfers, but it is refreshingly clean and no-nonsense. It's easy to get started with right away, and after only an afternoon of fiddling around you can have a complete catalog management, customer tracking and order processing system up and running -- just waiting for data to be poured in. High marks for this well designed application.
Chris Wenham is the Senior Editor of OS/2 e-Zine! -- a promotion from Assistant Editor which means his parking spot will now be wide enough to keep his bicycle and a trailer.
|Copyright © 1998 - Falcon Networking||ISSN 1203-5696|