[ Go to April 1997 Table of Contents ]|
-- by Serdar Yegulalp
A personal database should be the exact opposite of the fiercely aloof SQL engines used for centralized applications. A personal database should mold itself to the needs of the occasional and nonprogramming user. It should be easy to use, flexible, helpful and approachable. It should be ... well ... Approach 97.
In this new release, Lotus has preserved all of Approach's trademark flexibility and ease of use: extensive sample applications, the ability to use a variety of database formats, balloon help, online documentation, wizards, and a comprehensive set of built-in reports and queries.
We found two new features valuable. One is the use of stylesheets, which allows you to easily enforce a consistent look across forms and reports. Another is Apt files. You save a database in a special compacted form that contains views and data of your choosing. Then you post the file where other Approach users can download it and view a read-only version of only the information you wish to distribute. This allows you to protect your database, while giving many people access to a snapshot of your data.
This new version of Approach touts publish-to-the-Net capabilities, although they're better in theory than in practice. We were able to publish an Approach database to an ftp site simply by answering a few questions, but we weren't able to use Approach to build a Web-based front end for the data. To access the data, we needed to provide Approach itself with the URL, which is not the same as firing up a browser and pointing it at the database.
Approach 97's other big publish-to-the-Internet feature allows it to display table and report output controls as an HTML page. Unfortunately, many controls, such as push buttons and radio buttons, aren't saved as HTML, so you get mixed results. Compared to a tool like Borland IntraBuilder, which is designed to do real Web-based database development, Approach is bush-league.
But some of Approach 97's new features are good indeed. Older versions of Approach used only the rather one-dimensional Approach macro language; Approach 97 supports Lotus' newly revamped LotusScript, which extends through all Lotus SmartSuite97 products as well. LotusScript strongly resembles Visual Basic for Applications, including the use of ActiveX controls in Approach applications. But it still reaches backward to accommodate users proficient in the old Approach macro language. Also, a tool for translating existing macros into LotusScript allows you to reap the rewards of LotusScript's greater flexibility and programmability without tedious rewrites. If you're a diehard, the old macro-recording and -programming features are still there, so you can continue to use existing macros gracefully.
For personal database designers and existing Approach users, Approach 97 remains a fine choice. With the addition of the sophisticated LotusScript, the product has expanded its target audience to more advanced users. The Internet features need to be more mature before it can really be the Web database product Lotus clearly wants it to be. Still, Approach 97 makes it to our Recommended List as the best personal database product, while Claris Corp.'s FileMaker Pro 3.0 remains the best choice for those new to databases in general.