Adventures in Alpha Land

Episode 9: Access to Alpha with Arthur Fuller

Arthur Fuller has been developing database applications for over 30 years. The last few years have been spent converting his MS Access apps to Alpha Anywhere. We discuss his reasons for making this change.
Show Notes

00:00 Adam: Intro to episode 9.

00:25 Adam: How long have you been using Access?

00:31 Arthur: I started with version 2 in 1994.

01:01 Adam: What kind of apps have you built with Access, and what kind of clients did you have?

01:06 Arthur: I've worked with small businesses all the way up to government ministries.

01:23 Adam: What database back-ends did you use?

01:32 Arthur: I've worked with the Access database, SQL Server, and MySQL.

02:16 Adam: Did you use existing systems or create new databases?

02:30 Arthur: Mostly existing databases.

03:13 Adam: You've found that corporations are comfortable with extending existing applications through a shared database.

03:26 Arthur: They prefer this approach.

04:04 Adam: What is your view of the future of Access?

04:21 Arthur: I'm not optimistic. They haven't done anything to enhance it in recent years.

04:52 Adam: What are the current limitations? What about Web and mobile?

05:02 Arthur: Web and mobile are increasingly in demand. For Access tht is a dead end.

06:05 Adam: What was your introduction to Alpha Anywhere?

06:15 Arthur: I was given a free copy of version 11 by Richard Rabins, chairman of Alpha, because I was active in the Alpha community.

07:34 Adam: What did you think when you started using it?

07:39 Arthur: The biggest change was how little code was needed compared to Access.

08:36 Adam: What kind of projects have you worked on with Alpha?

08:41 Arthur: The first one was a volunteer management system for a non-profit. Smartphones will be a major target.

09:44 Adam: Was that originally an Access system?

09:51 Arthur: They didn't have anything when I started.

10:21 Adam: What about transitioning Access systems?

10:27 Arthur: I'm building a new front end with Alpha for a safety engineering application, and keeping the existing back-end.

11:21 Adam: Have you done any work extending any existing Access app with new functionality?

11:34 Arthur: I am extending an Access system for an insurance company and leaving the existing Access app in place.

12:08 Adam: How do clients react to the idea of extending an Access app with Alpha?

12:28 Arthur: I usually show them the sample apps shipped with Alpha.

13:02 Adam: What limitations have you found in Alpha?

13:17 Arthur: I miss the database relationship tool, but the back-end database usually has that feature. In fact, the number of features in Alpha can be daunting.

14:32 Adam: So it's a learning curve issue?

14:38 Arthur: Yes, it's not a lack of functionality.

14:44 Adam: Do you see moving Access apps to Alpha as a good business opportunity?

15:00 Arthur: I see that as a good business, but I also see new clients without applications as an opportunity for Alpha.


00:00 Adam: Welcome to episode nine of Adventures in Alpha Land. This episode is a continuation of our discussion with MS Access developers who have made the move to Alpha Anywhere.

00:12 Today, we'll be talking with Arthur Fuller, an independent developer in Toronto. I've known Arthur for more than 30 years, going back to the 80s when we both worked with products based on the dBASE language.

00:25 Why don't we start, Arthur, with some background on your work with Access? How long have you been using it?

00:22 Arthur: I looked at version one and I discarded it quickly. I thought it was just a toy. But when version two came out in, I think, '94 or '95, I forget exactly, I began to take it somewhat seriously and develop apps in it. Starting then and continuing pretty much until a couple of years ago.

01:01 Adam: What kind of apps did you build, and what kind of clients did you work for?

01:06 Arthur: I worked for mom and pop shops, small to medium businesses, and in a few cases some large businesses like government ministries, insurance companies, and that sort of thing.

01:24 Adam: The back-ends, were they mainly using the Access database or SQL Server?

01:31 Arthur: Yeah. In the earliest cases, it was all the classic Access division between a front end and a back end Access database. But when version 2000 came out, and it introduced the ADP file format that could speak directly to SQL Server, the whole game changed -- my whole game anyway. That's when I pretty much abandoned Access as the back-end and worked exclusively with SQL Server.

02:12 Eventually MySQL as the back-end, using ODBC.

02:16 Adam: When you were working with SQL Server specifically, were you tapping into existing systems, creating new databases, writing add-ons?

02:30 Arthur: Mostly I was tapping into existing databases that the clients had on their servers already. Most of the time they had a front-end already, but rather than monkey with it when they wanted new functionality, that's when I and Access came into play. I would develop an ADP which talked to an existing database and provided functionality that wasn't already in their old system.

03:13 Adam: You've already proved that corporations are comfortable with the idea of extending their existing systems, but leaving the legacy systems in place, and then sharing everything through the database.

03:26 Arthur: Yeah, in fact, most of the time that's what they prefer to do. For one simple reason, because many times the original developer of the front end has since left, or retired, or et cetera. Sometimes they have this existing app that works within its limits, but they don't know how to fix it. They have no coders who are familiar with it, because the original coders have departed in one fashion or another.

04:05 Adam: You worked with Access for quite a few years, and went from smaller companies into corporate uses. How about the future? What is your view of where Microsoft is going with Access?

04:20 Arthur: I'm not at all optimistic. From what I've seen, the last innovations were introduced in Access 2000, and since then a couple of enhancements have been added for power users, but not programmers. They've seemed to have abandoned the whole idea that Access is a programming environment. They haven't killed it, but they certainly haven't done anything to enhance it.

04:52 Adam: Are there specific limitations? The obvious one is moving to the web, mobile. Has that become an important demand from your clients?

05:04 Arthur: Increasingly so. A few are still glued to the desktop, but a lot of them, even in large corporations, are this whole idea of BYOD, bring your own device. IT is still wrestling with how to harness this stuff and keep it in check, and prevent viruses, and stuff like that.

05:27 First it was laptops, then it was pads, and now it's smartphones. Increasingly, that's where the development focus is. Unfortunately for the Access community, that's a dead end. There's nowhere to go there.

05:53 They've introduced a couple of things in a lame attempt to make Access Web friendly, but there's nothing there, cases.

06:06 Adam: This would be a good time to explain your introduction to Alpha. When did you start? What was your experience like?

06:14 Arthur: Full disclosure is that Richard emailed me and offered me a free copy. The reason he did that is because I'm well known in the Access community, and an active participant, or was, less so now. But there's a website called Their most active subsite is called AccessD. I've been a participant on there for at least a decade, and am one of the most active responders to people's questions, and so on.

07:03 Because of that, that's why Richard offered me a copy of Alpha, which was at that time around version 11, I guess it was. I took it for a spin. I liked it a lot. Since then, I've become more and more devoted to it.

07:27 Adam: Just for clarification, that's Richard Rabins, the chairman of Alpha?

07:31 Arthur: Yes.

07:33 Adam: What did you think when you first started using it?

07:39 Arthur: Initially it was a little bit overwhelming, but the plethora of video tutorials, and stuff like that, helped enormously. In a sense, the hardest thing to get over was how little code I had to write. Because as an Access developer, almost everything you have to do involves writing code. In Alpha, it's completely the opposite.

08:11 Everywhere you look there are genies that you just fill in some properties and bang it works. It was hard to get used to, which is kind of contradictory. The ease of use was the hardest part, because I was used to having to code everything myself. Instead of just filling in properties, and letting Alpha do the work.

08:37 Adam: Since you've been working with Alpha, what kind of projects have you worked on?

08:41 Arthur: The first one that I did was a volunteer management program for a nonprofit called WoodGreen. They do housing for seniors and handicapped people, and stuff like that. A large portion of their workforce is volunteers. I wrote a volunteer management program for them. That is currently in testing still, and revision, but the intent there is to deploy it first to the web, and then to smartphones.

09:24 There's not a big need within their firm for tablet delivery, but smartphones is going to be a big asset. Also, when people want to check out the site, and enroll as a volunteer, that will be part of the website that they have.

09:45 Adam: Was that originally an Access system, or is that just something you started new with Alpha?

09:51 Arthur: They didn't have anything. I built that. I designed the database in Access, and then moved it to MySQL. We installed that at their headquarters and put in place an initial Alpha desktop version, so they could look at that. That's when I began to port to the Web.

10:21 Adam: What about transitioning Access systems, what experience have you had with that?

10:27 Arthur: I've got another client who does safety engineering. I have worked on his system for over a period, ad hoc basis, for several years as they refined it. That one, I'm still using the same back-end, but I'm not trying to copy the code at all, because it was written for Access desktop. The whole point of moving the system is to go to tablets and smartphones, and then talk to the back-end that way.

11:08 It's not really a transition. It's a start all over, and design it for tablets and phones.

11:21 Adam: Have you done any work on extending? When the client has a full Access system and they say, "Now we want a separate piece," have you done work like that?

11:34 Arthur: A case in point is an insurance company where I did an Access front-end, and then they wanted some new functionality. In this case, the original developer was still available, that's me. But instead, I left the original system alone, and then wrote some pieces in Alpha to add on. They actually have two apps now, not one, but it's the same back-end.

12:08 Adam: I'm just curious, when you approach clients with the idea of extending or rewriting from Access to Alpha, how do they react? What kind of arguments do you have to give them? What kind of proof that this is a valid way to move forward?

12:27 Arthur: Typically what I do is show them a couple of the samples that are shipped with Alpha, and that usually is enough to persuade them. Even the Alpha sports, that's a classic order entry type program. They can see how little actual code there is, and how much is done with properties and stuff, and like that. That's usually persuasive.

13:03 Adam: You've had very good things to say about Alpha. What are the limitations? Especially from the point of view of an Access person who wanted to make that shift, what's missing from Alpha, or what could be improved?

13:17 Arthur: Probably the single thing that I miss the most is the relationships window where you can diagram everything as it happens. Most of the time I'm working in SQL Server, or MySQL, so it's not really vital that that is lacking, because I can get there using SSMS, or SQL Bench in the case of MySQL. But still, it would be nice if they built a relationships window.

13:51 Other than that, I can't really think of a whole lot that I would call missing. In fact, part of the difficulty in transition is just the wealth of riches that are there.

14:06 There are so many aspects to it, that it takes a while. You don't just dive in, like in Access, and get going. You got to work through some of the tutorials, or load the samples, and stuff like that. This is not a complaint. It's just that the wealth of riches is a little bit daunting initially for an Access developer.

14:33 Adam: It's more of a learning curve issue than an actual functional problem?

14:38 Arthur: Oh yeah, I have very little if anything to say about lack of functionality.

14:44 Adam: We're basically coming to the end of our time. Why don't we close with any comments you might have for other access developers? Do you see this as a good business, helping people move or extend Access systems into Alpha?

15:01 Arthur: I see that as a potentially good business, but I also see that for new clients who haven't got a system yet, then there's no way in the world I would consider any more doing it in Access. I would say, "Let's go to Alpha, and here's why."