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Posted May 18, 2007

Access 2007 ... For Dummies?

By Danny Lesandrini

It's been a long time since I sought out a "For Dummies" book but when I first opened Access 2007, I knew what my next book acquisition would be: Access 2007 For Dummies. The new user interface was just too different and confusing to attempt to decipher without a little help. There are a number of "Dummies" books out there already for Microsoft Office 2007, and for Microsoft Access 2007 in specific, but I settled on Microsoft Office Access 2007 All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies, which retails for $29.99.

Microsoft Office Access 2007 All-in-One
Desk Reference For Dummies

By Alan Simpson, Margaret Levine Young,
Alison Barrows, April Wells, Jim McCarter

Buy this book.

After a brief review and assessment of this "For Dummies" book, I'll chip in my 2¢ about the new Microsoft database development product. Yes, it's still called Access and most of what you already know about Access still applies, but Access 2007 is going to take some getting used to.

Is "For Dummies" For You?

Let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My experience with Microsoft Access probably qualifies me to skip the "For Dummies" series, but the truth is, I enjoyed being spoon-fed the details of the new Access 2007 user interface. Sure, I had installed it and even plunked around with the new Ribbons and Menus, but I had to read chapter 2 (Getting Started, Getting Around) twice before I felt comfortable with the new navigation paradigm.

One great feature of the "For Dummies" books is the system of marginal icons that call attention to points of interest, such as Tips, Warnings and points worthy of Remembering. While there wasn't an icon for "New in 2007", the authors went out of their way to highlight new features in Access 2007. I'll review some of those points below, in the section "What I Like About Access 2007."

If you're an Access Guru, you probably won't get your $30's worth out of the book. The majority of it focuses on database design principals and building objects like tables, queries, forms & reports. There's a chapter on Macros that you might as well throw away and another on VBA that put me to sleep.

On the other hand, this Dummies book isn't stupid! While reading books for review, I often find myself yelling at the pages in righteous indignation over some ridiculous assumption or assertion made by the author(s). That didn't happen with this book. The material is accurate and well thought out. It proceeds at a good pace for someone new to Microsoft Access and database design in general. It goes deep enough without adding unnecessary complexity. I would definitely and heartily recommend this book for someone who wants/needs to get up to speed with Microsoft Access 2007.

Downside of Access 2007

First my criticisms: Microsoft Office 2007 has been out for some time now, but I've been in no hurry to adopt Access 2007 as a development platform, and neither have my developer friends. In a recent discussion on the topic, one of the premier Access Consultants in the Denver area said that until his clients start requesting it, he's not even going to install Access 2007.

I have installed Microsoft Office 2007, and I can confirm my friend's trepidation. If you need to support applications running on Office 2003 (and earlier versions) you probably won't want to install Access 2007 on your development computer. I'm not saying they can't coexist, but the already tedious process of switching between versions has been magnified ten fold. With Access v2002 and v2003 on the same machine, there was a relatively brief delay when switching between versions as registry settings were reset. With Access 2007, you might as well go get a cup of coffee when switching versions. The configuration screen below displayed for over a minute before gracing me with Access 2007's new user interface.

Switching back to Access 2003 (or switching between version 2002 and 2003) displays a more modest configuration dialog and requires less than 10 seconds to "install" and configure itself.

Those who know me realize that I'm a conspiracy theorist. (Don't even get me started about the fake moon landing!) While I don't have any proof of it, I believe that there is a Microsoft conspiracy to wean us from desktop applications in favor of browser based apps. (Remember Office Live?) It was something about the way Outlook 2007 rendered itself on the screen that suggested to me it was actually a web browser. Admittedly, it is a beautiful browser app, but I'm convinced that's exactly what it is. It wouldn't be that much of a leap from the Outlook Web Access to a locally hosted browser based Outlook 2007.

As I said, this is just speculation, but it caused me to look more closely at other Office applications, like Word, Excel and Access, to see if there were any signs of browser style behavior. So far, I've found no solid proof, but I'm still watching this one and I'll keep you posted. If Office 2007 products were moving from Windows to Browser, that would explain the configuration issue described above, and the performance hit that I experience when using the apps.

Two of the new 'features' of Access 2007 fall into the "I'm not sure about it yet" category.

  1. Ribbons, Menus, Navigation and Tabs
  2. Multivalue Lookup Fields

While the Ribbons, Menus, Navigation and Tabs create a new and no doubt efficient means of using the Access database program, they make it difficult to obfuscate Access from the user. Some developers like to put their own "face" on the applications they create with Access, and the new UI doesn't look like it's going to make that easy. I may be wrong, and if I am, I welcome a second opinion, but I know of one developer who's already been struggling with this issue, and while he got around it, the solution was so complex he could neither remember how he did it nor explain it to us without checking his code.

This is important to me at present, because the single most important requirement of the app I'm currently developing is that it has to hide every aspect of Microsoft Access from the user. In my next article, I'll share some of the tricks which make that possible, and demonstrate how the Access UI can be made to behave like a web page, only without the performance hit of a browser.

As for Multivalue Lookup Fields, I just think they are a bad idea. I mean, why would Microsoft want Access to behave more like Advanced Revelation. Never heard of it? My point exactly! There are already people who question whether Microsoft Access is a relational database. Let's not give them fuel for their fire.

Other than these issues, I've found no reason to dislike Microsoft Office 2007. The new menus and navigation will be fun to play with, and you can ignore multivalue fields. I'm looking forward to learning how to leverage the new user interface where I can, and unlike my associate, I've already installed it and I'm working in both environments. Things change, and you've got to keep up with the times.

What I Like About Access 2007

As I read through Microsoft Office Access 2007 All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies, I made notes about new things in Access 2007 that appealed to me. Below is a summary of the things I found:

  • Add a field to a table by selecting a field from an existing table.
    This is a great feature for keeping field names and types consistent.
  • New Attachment data type for Access tables
    Requires less space than OLE fields and holds multiple attachments.
  • Ability to add Totals Rows to datasheets
  • Common Filters on datasheets.
  • Ability to schedule saved imports with an Outlook task.
  • Using Outlook to collect data through email forms
  • Rich text format property for memo fields.

I didn't mention any of the user interface fru-fru in the bulleted list above, though maybe I should have. The ribbon includes a number of built-in color & font schemas which may be applied to forms and reports. Datasheets now make it easy to add an alternating shaded row effect. Opened objects now appear in a "tabbed" interface, much as they do in Visual Studio and SQL Server Management Studio. While I love this for my development environment, I'm not sure this makes for a good user interface, but time will tell.

Keeping Up With The Jones

Access 2007 is not for dummies. Some things will be considerably more difficult in Access 2007, other things will be considerably simpler ... once we get used to them. For a time, we developers will be able to continue blissfully along with our 2000-2003 versions of Access, but as Office 2007 weaves its way into businesses across the globe, we'll have to get up to speed. Procrastinate, if you must, but sooner or later, we're all going to have to learn the new product. This is one case where the "Dummies" book isn't a bad place to start.

» See All Articles by Columnist Danny J. Lesandrini

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