Alpha Software takes on Microsoft Access

Making a rare industry effort to take Microsoft Corp. head on in a desktop application, Alpha Software Inc. on Friday released Version 5.0 of its Alpha database with automated development features and improved capabilities to create customized applications.

Expected to go up against Microsoft's Access as well as FileMaker Software's product of the same name, Alpha 5.0 contains a raft of new features aimed to attract both users and developers including a new application scripting language.

The new language lets users and developers gain a finer level of control over their information, thereby making them more self-sufficient in terms of building customized applications, company officials claim.

"If you do not see yourself as a database professional, what you really care about is ease-of-use or to customize your solution without having to bring in the experts and the costs and time associated with that. We focused extremely hard on that aspect of it," said Richard Rabins. Alpha Software's co-chairman in Burlington, Mass.

Although Alpha software has had a consistent history of focusing on ease-of-use features trying to appeal to less sophisticated users, developers have become increasingly important over the past couple of years to the company as an attractive market opportunity.

"What counts with developers is not ease-of-use but to be able to build robust apps in significantly less time that the other market alternatives, with those alternatives being largely Access or Visual Basic," Rabins said.

Alpha is hoping that the database's lower price and reduced time required for projects will be appealing to both developers and consultants.

"Based on the feedback from early users, they are able to build robust apps in much less time than something like Access. And if developers and consultants can get jobs done in less time, then they can be more competitive because they can either bid lower on projects because their costs are lower and they have more time," Rabins said.

While many have shied away from taking on Microsoft on the desktop, Rabins thinks his chances are good if only because there is always a place for a No. 2 competitor who can add value in any market.

"People do not like to have total dependency on just one vendor. Having another choice in a market can only encourage competition because it applies more pressure on [Microsoft] to be more aggressive in terms of product development and pricing," Rabins said.

Some observers like Alpha's chances to make some headway against Microsoft, given the less than rave reviews many users give Access.

"This is not so much an issue of a little company going up against a bigger company. More importantly Microsoft has very limited database experience outside of Access. There are just thousands of details you have to get right in designing a database and Microsoft started off by getting almost none of them right," said Jeff Tarter, editor of The SoftLetter, an industry newsletter in Watertown, Mass.

The new version also sports improvements to its XBasic language, including a new interface building language called XDialog. The company has added a multi-pane color-coded script editor along with customizable menus and toolbars.

The product contains an integrated debugger that permits developers to create a high-level Action Scripting feature by using the code editor. They can switch at will between the code editor and the Action Scripting capability.

Version 5.0's Application Scripting can automatically write editable, structured, and documented code along with the ability to switch back and forth from across from the Menu system of Action Scripting to the XBasic code editor.

Designed to appeal to users as well as developers, Version 5.0 has several new features that better allow desktop users to manipulate and report on data without the need for higher level programming skills. Some of the end-user-oriented features include a visual report writer, fully integrated e-mail, security, back-up integration with Microsoft Office, and a number of data manipulation tools.

Alpha Software has included a Script Genie that can automate more than 200 different actions. It allows developers to produce customized and automated applications through a menu-oriented approach. Users do not need to know to XBasic use it, a company spokesman said.

For more information about Alpha 5, users can go to www.alphaworks.com.

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