Of Data and the Base
It is not surprising that the first thing most people install after the operating system is an office suite. It is one thing that is standard in all Linux distros too. Even if you only write the occasional letter it is an application that everyone seems to use. Perhaps the least used part of most suites is the database. In fact it is not included as a standard part of every office suite. Base was not added to OpenOffice until version 2 and even Microsoft only includes Access in the more expensive version of Office.
However I have always thought that database apps are undervalued. Few people realise the power of them and I guess the steeper learning curve deters the more casual user. I have made extensive use of various database apps for sometime now. Strange to say though the most ubiquitous one (Access) is one I have no experience with. I am not talking of full professional multiuser solutions but I do need something more than the basic Mailing list. So when I started using Linux it was natural that I would look for a database solution that ran under Linux.
When I heard Base was to be added to OpenOffice, yes that is how long ago this story starts, I was very excited. The other OO packages had proved useful replacements for the Office suite I was using at the time. In fact I started using OO in Windows before my move to Linux. When I experimented with Base though I was disappointed. I found it clunky, slow and counter-intuitive. It was only after finding a couple of tutorials online that I could get anything done.
Perhaps I was being unfair to Base as it was an immature product at the time and I was used to something with over a decade of development behind it. I had been using Approach which was part of the Lotus suite. It had always been a powerful yet relatively easy to use application. Lotus is part of IBM and they are no longer developing the Smartsuite which included Approach. They have released a beta of Lotus Symphony that is based on OpenOffice. At this stage there is no indication they will be adding a database application although there is strong support for it on the forum on their site.
In fact I had not found anything I wanted to do that I couldn’t find a way to accomplish using Approach. And I have never needed to use scripting either. Sadly that is not something I could say about other applications. An example is the simple use of a calculated field. A calculated field is one that the content is automatically developed (or calculated) from other field(s). A simple example would be the addition of tax in a price list. If you had a list of products you would type in the price and the tax code / percentage and the final selling price would be worked out. Of course this could be done using reports but if you wanted a quick visual reference you could use without the need to print price lists a calculated field is the easiest way. There are many other uses and they don’t need to be numeric fields either. In Approach it was simply a matter of defining the field as a calculated field and defining the formula and it worked. In Base it required the use of a query and adding that query as a displayed field. It is necessary to manually edit the SQL statement to ensure the result is formatted the way you require. And that is just one example.
I don’t want to spend the time developing a professional solution using mySQL or Firebird although they would do what I require. It would be like using a freight train to bring home the groceries. So what are my alternatives?
Well Base works for simple databases and can be forced to do some powerful things but it is slow and difficult to use. I hope it gets the development it deserves as it could be a useful tool with a better interface. Another option I found was Kexi. Kexi is part of the Koffice suite and my first impressions are good. It was easy to start using with an intuitive interface and good layout. I was able to create a simple table without using a tutorial or even the help screens. I haven’t worked out if it can do everything I require but it is worth a further look.
The other option is to stay with Approach. I have found it will run, with some restrictions, under Wine. For those who aren’t familiar with Wine it is an application that allows selected Windows programs to run under Linux and other ‘nix systems. No need to get into the technicalities of Wine but some programs run well and others with limitations. Unfortunately Approach falls into the latter category. It is possible to access and edit the data and even do simple maintenance work but creating a new table or report are among the tasks that are not possible. I have had mixed results with printing too. So I could do some day to day work with it but would require a windows system for any development etc.
That is what I am doing at the moment but long term I would like to consolidate everything under Linux. So the short term solution is to use Wine / Approach but long term I will give Kexi and other Linux apps further investigation. I would appreciate any suggestions for consumer level database apps that run under Linux.