What is the point of Office Suite database applications?

What is the point of these silly database applications bundled with every other Office Suite? Microsoft Office has Access, Open Office has Base, KOffice also has one. But why the fuck do we need these? Who uses them?

Ok, let me rephrase that. I know people use them – especially Access (I don’t know about the other two). But whenever they do we moan and groan, or point fingers and laugh. I mean, when was the last time when you looked at a solution that included an access database, and didn’t immediately think of 10 different reasons in which a real database would improve it immeasurably. What I really meant to ask was, what is their function – their niche in the database ecosystem. I really see no valid purpose for them.

If you need a small database to store complex data for your single user application, then you are really better off using something like SLQLite (or Apache Derby for example, if you are Java inclined) or something similar. There are dozens of projects out there that produce a small, low footprint file based, single user, embeddable databases out there. And most of them are smaller, faster, and leaner than Access. They also integrate seamlessly with your application, are more portable across different platforms and you usually don’t need to screw around with stuff like ODBC. And most of them are under some sort of free or open source license.

On the other hand, if you will have more than one user accessing the db simultaneously, you are simply better off with a real database server like MySQL or Postgress. Single user databases do not scale well in multi-user environments and they quickly become unmaintainable. And if you do attempt to use Access in lieu of a real db, you will likely make your IT person cry. Or laugh – those who laugh just don’t realize it will be their responsibility to maintain that piece of shit and stitch it together with crazy VBA hacks when it starts falling apart.

So, what is left? Oh wait, I forgot about the imaginary scenario when an ambitious entrepreneur who has no programming skills, sits down and designs a database complete with usable forms, queries and reports to support his startup business. As if that has ever happened. Come one people, let’s not kid ourselves – shit like that happens in fantasy land, not on planet Earth. I tell you what happens though.

If the guy is smart, he buys an off-the-shelf solution (usually comes in a shiny cardboard box) and asks his nephew who studies “computers” at college to install and set it up for him. If a ready-made solution doesn’t exist he will then pay said nephew no more $200 for designing a half assed solution. The quality of the application usually depends on whether or not the nephew took the database design and software engineering courses yet.

If the guy is dumb, he won’t be wasting time fucking around with fancy computer doodads. He will instead fall back on the swiss army knife of the business world – the spreadsheet. Them business folks can be pretty clever with their Excel formulas so he might end up with something that could actually be half-way sorta normalized but not really.

So, really – why do we need them? I can’t think of a single scenario where I would actually recommend MS Access for anything meaningful. How about you?

[tags]ms access, sqlite, derby, sql, databases, access, database design, mysql[/tags]

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13 Responses to What is the point of Office Suite database applications?

  1. jambarama UNITED STATES K-Meleon Windows Terminalist says:

    You’re right, I’ve never seen a real use for them. As with an awful lot of stuff in suites, only so much is useful. I think this is just the bundling idea of suites. If the firms can add something, without much difficulty, that gets 1% more to buy the entire suite, it is probably worth to the producer.

    Macromedia was big on this – people would buy the suite for flash, or dreamweaver or both, and they’d get all kinds of other crap like flashpaper, fireworks, etc. Adobe did this too – you would get the CS/CS2 for photoshop, illustrator, maybe indesign, and you’d get crap like bridge, golive, designer, imageready, etc. Heck, Adobe still does this now – unless you get the master collection they’re all missing one of Adobe’s best programs – photoshop, indesign, dreamweaver, etc.

    The only time I’ve seen Access used was in a dysfunctional library department, where each desk computer had the “N” drive mapped to a samba share somewhere that had an Access db. Everyone knew what things to type/click to enter information and pull out exactly what they needed – nothing more. I can’t say it was the worst way to do it (I’ve seen tons of people trying to use excel as a db, that is bad), especially given they had no technical people helping them, but of course they had the problem with “who’s got the file open, close it, I need it!”

    Microsoft does this “added value” bundling bit a whole lot, and I think it explains Access. Who uses groove, infopath, communicator, or that other crap in there? Not many people. I think it is just the feeble attempt to “add value” – and other suites follow so as not to look bad on a “feature” comparison chart. “MS Office is better than _________, it has Access, Frontpage, AND Publisher!”

    PS – what suite is visio, MS project, and MS accounting part of?

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Good point. I think Jeff Artwood blogged about this very concept not so long ago. If I not mistaken he called it a feature race. It seems that a huge concern for commercial software publishers is to have tons of new features in each new release because that’s what software reviewers concentrate on.

    Adding more products to a suite earns you a whole bucket load of bullet points on the “feature comparison” page in some magazine. :P

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  3. Jason UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    You’re right about Access. I’ve played with it a bit (we’re an MS office) but it was never helpful at all.

    But, we also have Filemaker Pro. This one has proven to be very helpful to me thus far. Mostly because it’s just so easy to use. I’m not a programmer but using Filemaker I can knock out a pretty adequate relational db in a very short time. Plus, we have an IT dept. that manages a Filemaker server. So, if multiple people need access to it, that can be arranged in short order. And I can customize it nicely with scripts. Again, I’m not a programmer, but I can make these db’s sing for me.

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  4. SourceView UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    well, actually, the database in Openoffice compares quire favorably to derby, only lots faster, and also java. it vis a great frontend to postgresql. Now, for cweb, access may not be your cup of tea, but for lots of stuff it is great too!

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Jason – I never really used Filemaker so I have no opinion about it. But I firmly believe that databases should be handled by database admins, or people who have some idea about database management, SQL and relational algebra.

    I really don’t think end users can design a properly normalized relational DB, with foreign key constraints, triggers, indexes and build efficient, optimized queries just by dragging and dropping icons in a GUI.

    I do think that a DBA is a very important position, and that every organization should have one.

    @SourceView – interesting. To tell you the truth I never really used the db in Open Office. I always assumed it was an Access clone.

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  6. Jake UNITED STATES Konqueror Linux says:

    Back when I got my first PC, my dad set up databases for me (I was roughly 5) to keep track of my CD’s and books in Access 2.0. I have always enjoyed using these type applications ever since. The forms are an excellent way to quickly input data and I have grown to rather like it. Call me n00bish, but they’re actually pretty nice for some things.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Jake – actually, I think you nailed it. That’s the niche – quick and dirty databases for personal use. You are right – if you wanted to keep track of your CD collection you could:

    1. use Excel (that’s n00bish)
    2. write a custom application to track it (a lot of work)
    3. just use Access

    If you planned to sell the CD’s or include the list in some application, then it would probably be best to export it into a better DB. But for personal use it’s perfect.

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  8. Jake UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @Luke Maciak: Nowadays I have everything imported into OO.o Base of course. The sad thing is that the only reason my dad knows Access is because they uses them all the time at a major airlines (previously dBase and Paradox) for various things. Access definitely doesn’t fit there.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    It’s actually kinda scary to think that Airlines would use Access. 8O

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  10. Steve CANADA Internet Explorer Windows Terminalist says:

    Actually, I use Access to do some minor data manipulation…it’s quicker and easier than dicking around in some huge and powerful SQL database. But that’s about it. And I only use it because it comes bundled with the Office suite that is foisted on us anyways. I certainly don’t write any applications with it. Well, except one to determine who has who for our family’s Kris Kringle thing at Christmas, and to keep track of my billable hours on projects.

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  11. Steve CANADA Internet Explorer Windows Terminalist says:

    Oh, and before you all laugh at me for using IExploder, again, I have no say on the applications on my work computer…well..not the one directly connected to our intranet. I usually use Firefox (though am playing around with Safari).

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  12. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Ugh – being forced to use IE should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. I really think this is a violation of human rights – you should look into suing your employer for inhumane work condition, mental anguish and etc… ;)

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  13. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    lol. Well, at least it isn’t IE7! Man…I think I would quit. Note the browser on this reply! Using my development box…see…I do use a proper browser. BlockSite and AdBlock Plus ftw!

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