Alpha Software’s Richard Rabins: The “Hidden” Database. Head to Head to FileMaker and Access

Alpha Software is a powerful and feature rich database. It competes head to head with its larger competitors FileMaker and Microsoft Access and in some respects Excel as well.

I wanted to find out more about Alpha Software’s database and asked co-chairman Richard Rabins, some questions. This email interview is quite long and I was tempted to cut it way down. However, I’m new to Alpha Software, I know many of you are and Richard’s not afraid to mention the competition and make the case for Alpha Software.
Although Alpha Software does not have nearly the brand awareness of its more well known competitors, it’s a powerful database solution that you should consider – especially if you are not using a particular database.
[]When considering database software, there are only a few database products, File Maker Pro and Microsoft Access. Why should small businesses consider Alpha Software.
Tools like FileMaker, Access, and Excel have massive brand awareness, thanks to millions they have spent on advertising over (literally) decades. As such, they are likely to be the “obvious” choice for small businesses who have not researched their options, or who don’t even know where to start to do such research.
Here’s a quick overview of what we see as they key benefits of Alpha Five for small businesses.
Alpha Five is the only tool of the lot that makes it easy for most any small business to build professional desktop applications, Web applications, or hybrid applications (Web + desktop).
FileMaker and Access are both strictly limited to desktop applications, unless you want to learn a programming language. Excel doesn’t even build desktop applications, let alone Web apps. It’s limited to spreadsheets which are best suited for financial analysis, not small business workflow.
Because it can build true Web apps, Alpha Five makes it possible for small business to move services and business functions online.
Welcome to 2007! This simply cannot be achieved easily, if at all, with FileMaker, Access, or Excel. There are many potential benefits here. Firstly, this can dramatically improve customer service by allowing small businesses to deploy self-service apps. It can also boost revenue, because they can now easily conduct commerce onlineóand not just shopping cart stuff, but any kind of commerce. For example, a small insurance company could accept applications and sell policies online, through “smart” Web database forms. Small service companies could take work orders online, schedule appointments, and even provide estimates. Likewise, they could outfit their people with Web-based mobile phones, such as the iPhone. By using Alpha’s built-in support for iPhone and mobile Web apps, they can “mobilize” their field workforce. When you make it easy for businesses to move functions, processes, and services to the Web, nearly anything is possible. The imagination is the only limit. Alpha Five’s Web database support alone can level the playing field for small businesses that need to compete against other companies, no matter how large. Try building this simple Web app in Access, FileMaker, or Excel.
Alpha Five “scales”. Access and FileMaker both limit the number of users who can simultaneously hit a database. In FileMaker, it’s 9. In Access, its 10. Need to give more than 9 or 10 users access to your small business database? Dip into your wallet, and ante up for a FileMaker or Access server. By contrast, Alpha Five databasesówhich costs less to begin withóscale to hundreds of users, without requiring additional servers. Any small business could invest in Alpha Five, and know their database needs won’t be outgrown. (Excel has some very limited multiuser features, but there is virtually no data validation or integrity. It’s wide open. One user can change data while another is editing it, and the data will be lost. It’s not recommended to use it beyond a few users.)
Alpha Five can grow with a small businesses needs. It’s easy enough for most anyone to use, but powerful enough for the most sophisticated developers. If your small business gets to the point where it needs a professional programmer, they won’t need to throw out your original Alpha Five databases. Rather, they’ll be able to build on them, using all the tools and toys professional coders prefer. We like to say that Alpha Five offers more flexibility, customizability, power, and control when compared to FileMaker and Access, WITHOUT sacrificing the ease of use that is CRITICAL to small businesses. This added value is essential if a small business wants to have the confidence that “no matter what” their business requirements or problems are, their database will be able to handle it. Conversely, FileMaker and Access both run out of gas when the business problems they are asked to solve become complex. Again, if you need programmability in FileMaker, forget it. If you need reporting (desktop and web) in Access or FileMaker, forget it (Alpha Five includes a complete report writer). If you need Web capability in either, hire a programmer, because you can’t do it yourself.
Relative to MS Access, Alpha Five offers the same or more power, but is focused on ease of use, productivity, and security. Access is notorious for its security holes, and for having a steep learning curve. It works best if you know how to program in Visual Basic. And again, it can’t do Web apps.
In building desktop applications in Alpha Five, “genies,” “field rules,” and “action scripting” empower people to be very productive, and let them to build complete desktop solutions without having to lean how to program.
For Web applications, “components” and the Alpha Five “Web security framework” and “Web reporting framework” are key tools that enable non-programmers to be highly productive, and build complete Web solutions without having to learn Web programming.
It is worth noting that Web database technologies such as.Net, Java, PHP, ASP, JSP, Ruby on Rails, ColdFusion, etc., that small business might be considering, are VERY hard to learn (they’re aimed at professional programmers) and they DON’T do desktop apps. See examples of desktop applications built in Alpha Five.

What role does Excel play in being a competitor to Alpha and I guess many other software applications.
Excel is not a competitor. It’s a spreadsheet, not a database. You use Excel to crunch numbers. While some people use it for forms and list management, etc., it’s really best suited for spreadsheets.
If an organization needs to MANAGE, ANALYZE, USE, REPORT ON, and CONTROL DATA on the desktop or the Webócustomers, inventory, locations, people, products, orders, payables, receivables, processes, projects, etc.óthen they need a database.
Databases are also secure, so you can control who accesses certain data, and even what data can or cannot be entered into a given record or field. You can also track who entered or changed data, and when. And you can create myriad reports based on your data set.
A simple example of something that would be a pain in Excel but easy in Alpha Five: A business does an e-mail campaign to 20,000 opt-in prospects. Some 7,200 of these prospects ask to be removed. In Excel, someone would have to manually search for and delete 7,200 names. In Alpha Five, you would be guided by a genie through a one time subtract file A from file B operation. You could even setup an Alpha Five e-mail application to allow people to automatically add or remove their names and addresses.
That said, Excel is a good tool for simple office tasks, so Alpha Five works with it. You can import or export Excel files with Alpha Five. You can also use Alpha Five to build reports against Excel data, or drawing from Excel and QuickBooks data at the same time (a common small business scenario).
Alpha Five also lets you build Web applications or intranet applications against live Excel data.
A good white paper covering the differences between Excel and Access (i.e., spreadsheets and databases) is here.
SaaS is expanding, namely with Quickbase and databases built into HyperOffice, WebEx Office and other hosted applications. How has the evolution of SaaS affected Alpha’s business.
We’re riding the wave. Alpha Five Version 8 was engineered to be fully Web 2.0/SaaS savvy. Alpha Five’s creates powerful Web applications with security and reporting 5-10 times faster than traditional programming languages and tools, such as.Net, PHP, Ruby, ASP, etc. Alpha Five is a *great* choice for building on-demand applications!
Demand for Web, browser-based, on-demand solutions is exploding! But the current crop of Web development tools are painfully complex and time consuming, and require strong programming skillsósomething not in great supply in small businesses. However, with Alpha Five you are able to:
– Significantly cut time and cost to create and maintain these solutions. (According to McKinsey & Company, labor represents 80% of Application Development costsóif you cut development time, you realize huge savings)
– Eliminate or reduce the complexity of building Internet and intranet applications.
– Reduce the risk of starting costly projects that don’t get completed.
– Get to market quickly with SaaS solutions and thereby save $$ and time. Gain “first-to-market” advantages.
– Drive your competition nuts, because they won’t know how your small biz managed to get a great Web app up so quickly, while they’re paying consultants to custom-code a solution, and growing old in the process.
Hybrid applications are another interesting advantage of Alpha Five. They’re a “best of both worlds” approach. You can take advantage of the full power of Windows desktops, coupled with the benefits of letting users work with your application from a browser.
Suppose you are building a database application. The back-office functions, such as adding products to inventory or ordering more items from suppliers, are handled as a Windows desktop networked application (see screenshot, below). Desktop applications take advantage of the full power of your Windows PC, and are not limited by your Internet connection’s speed.
Now suppose that you have sales people (or vendors or any person you authorize) on the road. They need to check inventory levels and current pricing, or place orders. Your database application is extended to the Web (see screenshot, below) so they can log in from any Web browser or Internet terminal. You can even give customers secure, direct access to their orders and accounts.
This means anyone authorized can log in and get real-time information on their notebook PC, their Blackberry or their iPhone – or any other Web capable device.
And here’s the great thing. You can build both the desktop part and the Web parts with the same software: Alpha Five version 8, sharing the same data. Everything is integrated into one package, so you never have to worry about compatibility issues or limitations.