The Future of Access
July 27, 2004
On July 15th, the Denver Area Access User Group (see DAAUG at http://www.daaug.org/ ) celebrated its 10th anniversary with a special guest speaker from Redmond, Jon Sigler, the Microsoft Access Group Program Manager. Jon has worked in the database market for 16 years, originally with the Fox Pro group at Microsoft, and for the last seven years as the Group Program Manager for Access. He was kind enough to come out to see us on our special day, bringing news of great things to come for Microsoft Access.
Landing Pad for Data
Jon began his presentation with a brief history of Microsoft Access. While the old timers in the group found this walk down memory lane both sentimental and enjoyable, for the sake of this article, I will boil it down to highlights and the main point, sparing you the grueling details.
The first version of Microsoft Access (v 1.0) was released in October 1992. Version 2.0, which became available in April of 1994, was considered their "best release to date." It was a robust and well-rounded product that is still in use today. Access 97 was the next great release and is widely used in businesses across the globe. The current version is Access 2003, which in my humble opinion, is the best version to date. The next release will be Access 12, which is all about reinventing Office and later we will reveal a little of what we might expect to see in the next version.
In the course of his presentation, Jon used the expression "landing pad for data" several times. During a break, I asked him if that was a new marketing slogan for Access. He chuckled and went on to explain how those words have been a catch phrase for the Access development team throughout the years, a touchstone of sorts. Each new feature had to contribute, or at least not detract, from the goal of making Microsoft Access a "landing pad for data."
What does this mean, "landing pad?" I do not know exactly how the Access development team understands the expression; it has a great deal of meaning to me. Access is the greatest place to "dump your data." Sure, you can build enterprise level applications with Access, but you can also use it as a container for raw data. Everything from complex information, as in data warehouse, to simple text & number dumps for temporary analysis, a data scratch pad if you will.
For example, I recently disagreed with another developer over the usefulness of the Create New Table By Entering Data option. His reasoning is that, since you need to set data types, defaults, field names and the like, you might as well just create tables from design view. My reasoning is that more than half the time all I really want to do is paste a clipboard full of numbers from Excel or SQL Server into a container where I can slice and dice them. Most often, all I need is a "landing pad" for my data!
Jon was right; this is at the heart of Access and will drive its future development. Someone asked him if the next version might include triggers on tables. He thought for a few seconds, then explained that it is not their goal to reinvent SQL Server and whatever they decide to include, it will not be allowed to interfere with the ability of Access to serve as the "landing pad for data." While this thinking may disappoint some, it assures me that Microsoft Access will continue to dominate its niche as the best desktop database system on the market!
Access Conversion Toolkit
Soon Microsoft will release the Access Conversion Toolkit, which is designed to help businesses analyze the impact of upgrading to a newer version of Access, preferably Access 2003. Imagine if your organization had hundreds or thousands of desktops. The cost of upgrading would include not only the price of new Office software, but also the expense of converting all those Access databases that have become critical to daily operations. This task might seem daunting, but it isn't and the Access Conversion Toolkit was designed to show you just how simple a conversion might be. You can read more about the toolkit at the Microsoft Office site: http://www.microsoft.com/office/ork/2003/journ/accessconvert.htm
Not only will this tool be freely available from the Office Resource Kit page, it will be delivered as an MDB file with access to all its source code. (See http://www.microsoft.com/office/ork/2003/default.htm for the Office 2003 Resource Kit page.) It's actually quite a simple tool that performs the following functions:
The Executive Summary report (shown below) illustrates the analysis results. Each database is given a Rating that indicates if user intervention is Required, Likely or Unlikely. The total number of databases on your machine or network is displayed, as well as their last used date and whether or not the instance is actually a database backup. With this information in hand, one company considering the upgrade to Office 2003 discovered that half of the 80,000 Access databases on their network could be archived or deleted. Only 1% of the remaining databases required user intervention to convert and the savings in recovered disk space paid for the upgrade. The message is clear: upgrading from Access 97 is easier and less expensive than you think!
The Future of Microsoft Access
While Jon was not able to reveal specific details of Access 12, he did give us a good idea of how the team goes about deciding what to include in future versions and he hinted at a few cool new features on the wish list. If even a fraction of the ideas being kicked around makes it into the next release, it will be a worthwhile upgrade.
In order to figure out what users really want from the application, their team leverages customer visits, focus groups, newsgroup comments and feedback from user groups like DAAUG. In fact, during his presentation Jon was offered a number of suggestions from power users in our group for things they would like to see in Access 12. In fact, an interesting statistic reveals that half of all Access users are involved in building applications (as opposed to simply running delivered apps). In addition, it is estimated in the United States alone there are over four million Access Developers.
User interviews reveal that the things people love about Access are its Wizards, integration with Office, the ease with which VBA can be employed to create rich applications and especially the JET database engine. In recent years, it has been rumored in the Access newsgroups that Microsoft was prepared to retire JET but Jon put those rumors to rest. In fact, the JET engine makes Access a perfect landing pad for data and that is not something anyone wants to change.
However, there will be changes in the next version of Access. From what was said, I get the idea that the entire Microsoft development machine moves with one fluid motion and the look and feel of Access will follow the general direction for all Microsoft applications. (Read Longhorn here). Some potential enhancements that have been suggested include:
I realize this all seems a little vague, but that is probably because no
one can say for sure at this point, what features will actually ship with
Access 12. Jon was kind enough to share the results of their research
and assures us that the Access team is working hard to make the next version
the best ever. One thing is for sure; they will not give in to the
temptation to morph Access into a web tool or something else that might
detract from their goal to make the world's best desktop database ever.