FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt): Where does Access fit in Microsoft’s future?
Before that question is answered, we should examine why it might be important.
Consider the current landscape (admittedly about to change with the scheduled November release of Visual Studio and SQL Server 2005): Dedicated SQL DBAs and so-called “serious” developers tend to regard Access as a cute database; not one intended for serious development. Indeed, an outsider might conclude that the Access development team is a skunkworks project that outgrew Microsoft’s ambitions for what was intended as an end-user tool, not a developer tool.
But the landscape changed when Access introduced the ADP (Access Database Project) file format. This new format was cool beyond belief, and aroused jealousies on the other (“serious development tools”) side of the street.
Thanks to ADP, it became possible to develop significant applications that spoke intimately to SQL Server, in a lot less time than even the best VS developers could match. Of course, if the given app was required to talk to Oracle, Sybase or other database programs, then the only avenue was the MDB format, not ADP, but for those MS-SQL-dedicated apps, the ADP format was a godsend.
Not incidentally, Access ADP projects far surpassed the capabilities of Enterprise Manager, although not in every single feature (there remain things ADP cannot do right out of the box; you would have to write some capabilities using the SQL-DMO library, but a quick review of the DMO library lets you do this very quickly).
From within an Access ADP, you can create stored procedures, views and user-defined functions (UDFs) far more easily than in any other MS development tool. Once you have created these back-end objects, your development work in a so-called “serious” platform is that much easier.
It may be that your firm does not want to develop and deploy in Access, but that is not the point. The point is that the Access development team positioned Access as a tool for significant development projects.
Mixed signals from Microsoft
With that background in place, we now look at the previews of Office 12 and its radical UI innovations. Access developers are now scared. The irony is that a significant number of them (judging by threads on various newsgroups) have already committed to abandoning the MDB database format in favor of the SQL Server/ADP format. They feel slighted, relegated to the “power-users” pool rather than the development pool. They feel that they have been wasting their time and wonder whether they should bail out now or stick with an incredibly powerful RAD product. Nobody wants her vendor to chop her legs out from under her.
Mixed signals abound. Word on the newsgroups has it that Access has been declared, if not dead, at least orphaned. Microsoft has attempted to counter this perception in various presentations. This is the positive spin from Microsoft. Other presentations devoted to developers concentrate on .NET, SharePoint Server et. al., giving rise to the mixed signals.
Tied intimately into this discussion is Microsoft’s embrace of XML and its future progeny (RDF, etc.). I have a problem with this direction, based strictly on signal-to-noise ratio. XML requires many more characters to describe the datum than the datum itself, and this bothers me. The reasoning seems to be that chips are fast now, disk space is cheap now, so we can consume 1K to describe a long integer. Something about this scenario disturbs me deeply, but I accept that this is my particular old-school perspective. I got into this business in an era where byte count was important. Apparently, even megabyte count is no longer important.
All over the Access and FoxPro groups, developers are expressing fear, uncertainty and doubt about what Microsoft is going to do with Access. Developers who have devoted a decade to mastering Access are considering abandoning their ship due to Microsoft’s mixed signals. On the one hand, Microsoft purports to support Access and Office developers. On the other hand, the company undermines any confidence that these developers might have about their place in the universe.
Is there an Eclipse in your future?
As for me, I’m placing a side bet, not yet committed but always willing to bet long odds as long as the arithmetic justifies such a bet. (As a seasoned backgammon player, I can make such a statement with confidence.) Many developers in online discussion groups are looking for alternatives, and the main alternative at this writing seems to be Eclipse.
There are several possible explanations for the movement toward Eclipse-perhaps people are losing faith in the Redmond vision; perhaps developers are only trying to cover themselves with an escape route; perhaps they are now so cynical that they are unwilling to commit to MS; or perhaps they are simply looking for a way to individuate themselves in the resume-marketplace. I cannot speculate as to their motives, but I do notice a distinct trend. On the MS side of the fence, there is an accruing mistrust; on the alternatives side of the fence, a rapidly accruing interest in Eclipse.
My read could be quite wrong. I look at various groups and pretend no omniscience. But what I do detect is increasing suspicion of and unhappiness with the Microsoft vision of the future. Some of the comments go so far as to call MS fascist-I certainly will not go that far! But the fact remains that various communities (Access, FoxPro, SQL 7) feel abandoned, and coerced into the new dawn and the new day. The perceived message is, “Forget your favorite baby; there’s a new kid in town.”
Perhaps I should emphasize that this is not my take on what is transpiring-at least not entirely. Reading the newsgroups, I detect profound unrest. The Access people, the FoxPro people, and the SQL 7 and SQL 2000 people are seriously uneasy. They feel that MS is “obsoleting” them, thereby gaining twice-first, by making these developers subscribe to various training courses, and second by coercing their clients into the new vision.
Good UI, but unnerving
All that said, I have been perusing the various Office 12 and SQL 2005 presentations, and I am much impressed by the new capabilities offered. Also, I have written a number of complex applications using various development platforms, and I readily admit that the old “menus and toolbars” paradigm results in more problems than it solves. In parallel with the complexity of the app in question, this old paradigm makes people hunt for commands that should be contextually obvious.
The new Office 12 user interface is a big step toward solving this problem, and for this I applaud the MS UI design team. Still, the new UI unnerves thousands of developers, in all platforms-Microsoft must address this problem, and quickly!