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COMPUTER FILE / Lawrence J. Magid

Ashton-Tate Has a Likely Winner

February 25, 1988|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | Lawrence J. Magid is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer

Ashton-Tate, the nation's third-biggest publisher of personal computer software, enjoyed tremendous success, first with its dBASE II and then with its dBASE III database management software. Now it looks like the Torrance company may have another winner with dBASE IV, the latest version in its powerful database management line.

Whatever its number, dBASE is sophisticated software that allows personal computers to manage lists of information as simple as a personal address book or as complex as a big company's personnel records. It can sort information in almost any way. For instance, a company could use its database software to quickly come up with a list of all employees who are due for a salary review or who were hired within the past five years.

dBASE II was the first widely accepted database management program for personal computers. It was introduced in 1981, eight months before IBM announced its first personal computer. An IBM PC version of the software followed in 1982 and quickly became the standard for IBM-style machines. dBASE III and dBASE III Plus followed suit.

In fact, Ashton-Tate claims to sell more than 60% of the database management software bought for IBM-style personal computers.

The software's popularity stems, in part, from its flexibility. It has its own programming language, making it possible for sophisticated users to adapt it for nearly any kind of database application. There is even a thriving industry of professional dBASE programmers who make their living writing applications for their employers or clients or for commercial software packages.

Once I spent weeks learning to program in dBASE II. It was worth the effort because it was the only way I could create the database that I needed. When dBASE III came out, I was able to work with it immediately. The program used all of the old commands in addition to many new ones introduced for that version.

I have gone over the specifications of the program, which was announced Feb. 17, but I have not been able to get an early copy of the program to test it. The program will not be shipped until July 31. In any case, there are clear-cut improvements promised: Ashton-Tate says it is easier to use, equipped with many more features and 10 times faster than its predecessor.

The most noticeable enhancement is its "control center," which displays menus for all major functions. That allows users to perform data management tasks without having to learn complicated commands.

With dBASE II, the only way to enter instructions is to type commands. dBASE III offers a little more help with an optional menu providing access to some of the program's features. For most of the features, however, users still need to know the dBASE language.

dBASE IV is better yet, having a control center--a series of menus--that can be used to query an existing database or to design a new one. It can be used for organizing, entering, reporting or printing information. But for programmers, masochists and old hands familiar with dBASE II or III, it's still possible to enter commands by typing them one line at a time.

The new version also comes with a feature called the "applications generator," which, once you specify the tasks you want to perform, automatically stores the commands for repeated use. These stored commands, which amount to a program of sorts, can be modified and enhanced if necessary.

For some corporate and institutional users, dBASE IV helps open the door to "distributed applications," whereby mainframes, minicomputers and PCs act like partners, automatically exchanging data when necessary. That is a result of its ability to understand the so-called Structured Query Language, or SQL, that is commonly used on mainframe and minicomputers from IBM, Digital Equipment and other manufacturers.

(Ashton-Tate clearly is committed to the computer partnership approach: It recently signed an agreement with fellow software giant Microsoft to develop SQL-based software to run under Microsoft's new OS/2 operating system.)

dBASE IV is designed to work on a local area network. That makes it possible for several users to have simultaneous access to the same database without getting in each other's way. For example, it has a "record locking" feature that prevents two people from destroying data by accidently updating the same piece of information at the same time. Companies can protect sensitive information by requiring passwords to gain access to certain files.

Other features make it easier for users to control the way information is entered on the screen as well as how it will look when printed. Being able to control the appearance of the screen can make entering data easier and more efficient. Being able to produce prettier reports makes life more pleasant for those who have to read them.

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