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Program Packs More Punch for Less Money

September 15, 1986|Richard O'Reilly | Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

Any time a software publisher cuts the price of a popular program by more than half while at the same time increasing its power, features and ease of use, you've got to take notice.

That's what Microrim, the Bellevue, Wash., publisher of R:base database software, has done with the introduction of R:base System V as a successor to its R:base 5000 Multi-user program designed for personal computer networks.

R:base 5000 Multi-user was priced at $1,500. Now, although it remains available at a reduced price of $700, it has really been supplanted by the more powerful R:base System V, also priced at $700. At the same time, the single-user version of R:base 5000, which once cost $700, is now $495.

Database is just a computer word for a list, albeit a very specialized kind of list.

The best way to visualize such a list is to think of a sheet of ruled paper that has been divided vertically into a series of columns. Suppose the columns are labeled across the top "employee number," "name," "department," "hourly wage," "hours worked" and "total pay."

Now fill in the blanks row by row down the piece of paper. The result is a table of data called a database.

It is cumbersome to make such a table by hand, and if you make a mistake it's difficult to correct. And it's difficult to look up information on it once it's made. If calculations are involved, such as determining total pay, they must be made by hand. But if you do it all on a computer database program, it is much easier, and the computer helps you out. It will multiply "hourly wage" by "hours worked" and fill in the "total pay" blank for you. And if you want to look up totals for a single department, it will quickly compute and display the information.

Nearly any simple list management program will do that. But R:base System V is a "relational" database that lets you work with more than one table (list) of data at a time and lets one table share data with another table.

A good example would be a second table that calculated all of the tax and insurance deductions required to compute take-home pay, referring to total pay in the first table to do so.

Now that you know what a relational database is, I must also say that they are deservedly notorious for being difficult to use. Attempting to do more than manage a simple list on such programs typically requires a good bit of skill, and usually programming knowledge, to get done what you want done. Some consultants earn a good living just writing database programs so that those who enter, retrieve or analyze the data can do so easily.

R:base System V attempts to make life a lot easier for the user, and to a certain extent it succeeds. But a newcomer still will have to spend a good week or more becoming thoroughly familiar with its features before attempting to build a database application of any substance.

The significance of System V's multi-user feature is that it can be used on a network simultaneously by as many people as can share the central hard disk storage unit--the so-called file server--used on the network. The program is smart enough not to let two people work on the same data in the same table at the same time, so that one can't interfere with the other.

The new version has many advantages over R:base 5000. For instance, it has something called "views" that let you look at items of data together that were drawn from as many as five separate tables. In the old program, you must create a new table to do that, thus taking more disk space just to store redundant data.

The new program has 70 math and computational functions that let the program figure out the answers for you from the data you have available. That means you don't have to know the formula for computing "future value" of an asset, for instance.

It also has the ability to store text notes as part of a database, each up to 4,092 characters long. To save disk space, however, the program only stores the actual text you enter into a note rather than padding out the unused length with spaces.

A new "crosstab" function allows you to compare columns to one another to compute averages, counts, minimum or maximum values, standard deviations, variances or sums.

Databases now can contain 80 tables with a total of 800 columns. There is no limit to the number of rows of data for each column other than the disk storage available. R:base 5000 is limited to 40 tables and 400 columns.

Ease of use is provided through a series of "express" features that give the user full access to the complex programming language underlying the program without having to learn that language.

Simply by picking actions to be accomplished from a series of menu choices displayed in proper context, the user commands R:base System V to write a custom program to allow those actions to be repeated over and over at the touch of a key or two.

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