There was a time, when we were all new to personal computers, that we loved to build and use databases. A computer is the perfect tool for that kind of record keeping. However, in time, we all drifted away from that activity. But why?
Back in the days before the public Internet, it was just us and our computers. We could play games. We would compose documents with a word processor. And we could select from a fairly wide range of database programs (many on the PC including the still formidable MS Access, a few on the Mac) that allowed us to keep track of our CDs, records, books, wine bottles and whatever we were collecting. After all, we had lots of time back then.
Of course there was always a need for small businesses to build databases, but those tended to be relational. And that was perhaps part of the problem. Databases that could handle relational concepts tended to be a bit more complex and expensive. That meant ever more development costs that were lost on the average user. Meanwhile, the typical home customer—who thinks in terms of flat files—got caught up in the forward rush into ever more complex databases for business and perhaps even file format updates. It got to be a hassle for many.
By and by users learned that, because they were thinking in terms of flat files, there were many simple programs, likely already on hand, perhaps at modest additional cost, that could do the job without much fuss. AppleWorks, Numbers, and Microsoft Excel. Why build input and output forms when a spreadsheet lays it all out visually?
The end result was that developers competed to extract every possible penny from businesses while the average user fell out of love with endless upgrade costs and hassles. Recently, Filemaker reacted by creating a simpler, friendlier version of its flagship database called Bento, but in the end, that didn't work out and Bento was killed. I heard that it was eating into FileMaker sales. If true, it just reveals the difficult economics of small scale, user friendly databases.
The Internet Transition
Along the way, another thing happened. What I call the stamp collector mentality faded. The idea that one needed to catalog everything was from an era when we had time on our hands to explore that new thing called a personal computer. Then the Internet introduced a new idea: searching replaced cataloging.
By that I mean that we have have found, as we've progressed through the technical timeline, that it's more valuable to search for information on the Internet than it is to search through, for example, a personal database of our own stuff. If we need to search for a new book, we can easily find it at Amazon then download it to our Kindle app. By contrast, a personal database of books, a digital card catalog, doesn't tell us anything except that we either can't find the book anymore or it got thrown out or loaned years ago.
The internet taught us that the self-imposed hoops we created for ourselves, in relative isolation, are time wasters. Especially in an era with Amazon, cable TV, Netflix, Hulu, Roku and Apple TV.
Small databases do have their uses. Hometown, youth sports teams, home businesses, and attorneys, for example, may keep a real database. They may even delve into the power of a relational database. But that specialized audience is small, probably too small to support major effort by a developer.
Another thing happened along the way. Developers learned how to provide us with databases that are pre-built. We no longer have to build databases with input forms for our own meager data when there's a wealth of apps that make use of database technology to provide us with a vast amount of more useful information.
In fact, iTunes is a graphical front end to a music database. Mactracker is a database that already has the information we might have thought about collecting ourselves. Birding apps have built in information about bird identification, locations and perhaps even the sounds they make. It's a vast world out there of pre-built databases that we never have to design for ourselves.
The Internet turned us from inward focus with an isolated computer to a vast world of information, collected and organized for us in apps or searchable on websites with Google (or your favorite search engine). The personally built database of irrelevant personal stuff is a relic of the past, and we just don't need it anymore for our everyday lives.
Small businesses can outsource a database to experts and large corporations spend millions on Oracle databases supported by a team of DBAs (database administrators). But the typical home user is happy to throw together a Numbers or Excel spreadsheet if really pressed. It's easy.
As for the personal database app for the Mac? Rest in Peace.
My thanks to Jeffrey Mincey for inspiring me to go into more detail about the demise of the personal database.