A very friendly database program for the Apple. (evaluation) Terry Harmer.
A Very Friendly Database Program For The Apple
There are currently dozens of database programs written for the Apple II computer. They range all the way from simple "file card' types, to multifile relational systems costing many hundreds of dollars. The majority of them fall somewhere in the middle of this range, and this is where the competition is most intense.
The variety of features and prices makes choosing difficult. You must match features with needs, of course, but you must also try to find a program that you will still like six months or a year down the road--and one that is continually being updated so it will not become obsolete.
In terms of a database program itself there are many more questions to answer. Is the program simple or complex? Does it appear simple or complex (a rather different thing). Is it easy or difficult to learn? If it is difficult to learn, is the effort required justified by the performance? The answers to these sorts of questions will determine whether the program languishes on your shelf or becomes a much-used and trusted friend.
In many ways learning to use a database program (and other computer programs as well) is much like making a friend. You expend a great deal of time, effort, and psychological energy before you knew whether the program (or the friend) will turn out to be worthwhile.
If you discover something in a database program that is a bother, you will probably have to put up with it. Reading the documentation will not tell you how good a friend your program will become because most annoyances become such only through repeated use.
The newest database program from High Technology Software is Information Master, version 5.2, a program that falls squarely in the most competitive price range. In addition, there are two accessory programs that enlarge its functions and capabilities. The complete three program set consists of the following:
Information Master costs $150 and includes Data Entry, Data Modification, Report Generation, and Backup Utility modules.
Data Master version 3.5 costs $100. It includes programs to reorganize and transfer data, rename a system, modify a field type, and transfer format files.
Transit version 3.0, which costs $50, is a file translator.
With these three packages you can do almost anything you wish with your data. The screen formatting, while at times rather unusual, is neat, attractive and clear. Most commands are single keystroke (not requiring RETURN), so movement through the programs is fast and sure. Error checking on input is for the most part accurate.
The documentation subsequent to version 5.0 of Information Master has been extensively rewritten. There is now a complete tutorial section as well as a reference section. Instead of providing a sample file, the tutorial shows you how to create your own sample file from scratch. Starting from a very simple file, the features of Information Master are gradually introduced. The writing is clear and readable.
Sample screens are printed at important points so you can compare what is on your screen with what is in the manual. An index is provided.
The Information Master program is well thought-out and complete. A great deal of effort has gone into screen formatting and keyboard use. The programmers at High Technology Software understand how people use a program. You can go away for three months, and when you come back to the program you don't have to re-study the documentation to use it. That is a sign of careful design.
For example, the Create/Modify System Format screen, which displays the complete system format, all fields, their lengths and types, all the sorts and sub sorts, record lengths and so forth, is shown in Figure 1. There is an enormous amount of information on this page, yet it is clear and readable.
"Special' Features Standard
The back-up utility of Information Master is called Transfer Files.
It is a function of this module to make back-up copies of your data. In most database programs this function simply copies the disk, either by file name or by disk track. Not so with Information Master.
This utility will transfer either the entire file (complete with all your data) or only the system format (the file definitions as well as the report and sort formats but no data). Such a system (without data) can be easily modified, adding or subtracting fields or changing field types from within the basic Information Master program itself.
This is a very simple way to create a system similar to one you already have. You transfer the files without data, then make any changes in the file structure you want, and you have a new file.
If you just want to transfer data to another disk, Transfer Files does that easily. The program reads a series of individual records from the source file and then writes that group to the destination file. This provides a good check of file integrity since each record in the file is individually accessed and inspected.
If the program finds a bad record, it intercepts it, marks it, counts it, and writes it to the destination disk with *BAD* written in the first five positions of each field in that record. When the transfer is complete the program tells you how many *BAD* records it found. You can then go through your file and using the global editing feature delete those records. You will lose the *BAD* records, of course, but not the rest of your file.
Another feature not included in most database programs is almost a requirement for mailing list applications--the ability to close up unused lines in a mailing label format without losing track of where the top of the next label is. Where most programs leave an unused line blank, Information Master closes up the blank address line and adds that line to the bottom of the label so the total line count remains the same.
Another example of extra value is the inclusion of global record editing in the Information Master program. Global editing is the ability of the program to go through its entire file looking for records that you specify and either delete them or change a field according to your specifications. Using this feature, you can make massive changes to your files easily and automatically.
Another unique feature is called a print-time variable. This is a variable that you specify when a report is printed. For example, if you wanted to use the finance charge amount as a print-time variable for your accounts receivable report, you would first tell the program what question you wanted it to ask when it printed the report, e.g., ENTER FINANCE CHARGE PLEASE? When it is time to print the report, Information Master will print on your screen that request for information and wait for you to type in the answer. The numger you enter is used for any calculations that involve that particular variable when the report is printed.
For example, your finance charge may normally be 1% of the unpaid balance. If you made this a print-time variable, the program would ask you what finance charge you wanted for this particular report and you could answer with any number. This gives "what if' capability to a database program.
There are many other helpful features in the Information Master program as well as many little enhancements and details that make it an exceptional value. Some features just seem to appear when you need them. When modifying a report format, for example, your new format is saved upon exit. What if you change your mind? What if you can't remember how the report was before you started to change it around? How do you get your original report format back without having to rebuild it?
I was staring at the very first of the modification screens in exactly this position, wondering what to do when I decided to press the left arrow once more. The message IGNORE ALL CHANGES Y/N? appeared. It was as if the program had been reading my mind. It does not take many of these touches to make a program my friend.
One of the reasons for the quality of the Information Master program aside from the skill of its authors is that they have limited their goals. By not trying to be all things to all people they are able to polish and hone to perfection. Chief among these chosen restraints are number of records (1000 or disk capacity), number of fields per record (20), Apple DOS, six sorts (with five sub-levels in each sort), and ten lines per record for reports.
There limits are a compromise between system capability and human needs and seem to be well chosen.
This program is not for the impatient, however. There are points at which you sit tapping your fingers waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . for something to happen. For example, the wait is about 40 seconds for the PRINT FORMATTED REPORT module to initialize. After that everything else moves along smoothly. Informational messages appear on the screen if anything unusual is about to happen and these messages are constantly updated so that you know the program is still running.
The second program in the family is Data Master. This is basically a file restructuring utility.
The program takes two dissimilar files and transfers data from one to the other. This means that you can take any file and transfer parts of it to any other file. Thus, you can add or subtract fields and change field lengths or types without having to re-enter data.
If this were all it did, Data Master would be a useful and valuable utility, but it does much more. It allows you to reorganize your data while you transfer it. This turns it from a useful utility into an exceptional one.
For example, you can do math operations on your data and put the results into new fields. But the really creative feature allows you to take any part of a field or fields (a character or group of characters) and add them to any other field. You could, for example, take parts of several fields, combine them, multiply by another field, subtract a constant and put the result into a new field. The feature is both effective and useful.
The second function of the Data Master program is to allow you to rename a system (file) and its associated report, sort, and index files with one stroke. This is very convenient and fast when you have the same file on several disks and want to change the name on all of them--CHECKBOOK 1982 to CHECKBOOK 1983 for example. It saves a great deal of renaming.
You can also change a field type very quickly and simply with this program. You can change any field from any type to any other type (alpha, numeric, dollars/cents). You may get strange results changing alphabetic fields to numeric ones, but you are allowed to do it.
The final function of the Data Master program is to transfer newly created or modified report formats to all the disks on which their systems reside without affecting the data on those systems. This doesn't sound like much, and you probably will not use it often, but it will save you an enormous amount of time if you ever need it, because you won't have to recreate the report formats for each disk. You just set up your formats and the program transfers them to all the disks you request.
The second accessory to Information Master is Transit. This companion program allows you to translate almost any Apple DOS file into a file format that Information Master can understand. It writes the format and then transfers the data. If you have a data file created by File Cabiner for example, you could use Transit to turn it into an Information Master file. Thereafter you would use Information Master to add, modify, print or otherwise manipulate the data.
You could take a file created by a program written by a friend and convert it to an Information Master format with Transit. You could then use Data Master to add some fields of your own and delete some you don't need. Finally, using all the facilities of Information Master you could search, sort, edit, and print the file in any way you wanted.
Unfortunately you cannot use Transit to put Information Master files in formats readable by other programs. Information Master files are in standard Apple DOS, however, and the documentation provides the Information Master file formats. This makes it possible to write Basic programs that access Information Master files and allows you to write programs that translate Information Master files into formats for other programs.
Transit has one problem--it may (very rarely) hang when "building system.' This is what actually happens. Just before the program tries to "build system' it needs a fresh disk to which to write your new system, and it intends to initialize whatever disk you give it. Before it does the initialization, however, it takes a peek at the disk to see if you are about to destroy something important. If it sees a blank disk all is well. If it sees a normal DOS disk all is well. If it sees almost anything else all is still well.
There are, however, some very strangely formatted disks, and occasionally one of these will provide Transit with some strange data. Transit may then do one of two things when it begins to set up the format definition files. It may build the system file endlessly until the disk is full (at which point you are informed of this fact and gracefully returned to the menu), or it will spin the disk endlessly trying to write a file that is never longer than one sector.
The solution is simple. Just use another disk, initialize the disk with Apple DOS or erase the disk with a bulk eraser or degaussing utility. This problem seems to occur mostly with disks that have been used as DB Master data disks.
All in all Transit is a very helpful utility. The documentation alone will give you a nice introduction to file types and structures.
The basic feel of these programs is one of relaxation and flowing smoothness. Nothing is jerky, abrupt, surprising or disconcerting. Informational messages appear on the screen if anything unusual is about to happen and are constantly updated so that you know the program is still running.
These High Technology programs definitely live in the real world. They are designed for people. We constantly make mistakes, fail to plan ahead, and do various and sundry other unpredictable things. Information Master is designed and written with this type of behavior in mind.
Information Master is a program that gets better and better the more you use it. Once you have familiarized yourself with the program, you almost never have to refer to the documentation again.
Everything in the program is easily accessed. Reports can be altered immediately, sorts changed or eliminated, and selection criteria specified--all with ease. The apparent simplicity of the program bespeaks its sophistication. You can move back and forth through the various parts of the program easily. Screen formatting is clear, uncluttered and concise.
Flies In The Ointment
Although I could find no "bugs,' in any of the programs, there are things that I wish could be included or changed. Here is my wish list for Information Master:
program.up controlbeflowtime. record initializeto youwillprint systemseveralpullthrough
At $300 for the three modules this system is not cheap. But it is, in my opinion, the very best database available if you have a relatively small number (less than 1000) records. I recommend it.
Photo: Figure 1. Create/Modify System Format.
Products: High Technology Information Master (computer program)
High Technology Data Master (computer program)
High Technology Transit (computer program)