FileMaker and Microsoft pitch their FileMaker and Access database applications at everyday PC users as “easy-to-use”.

While the two programs are less complex and frightening than other PC database applications, they aren’t easy. At least not in the sense most of us understand the word.

I recently returned to the two programs after years away from databases. Although they have their plus points, neither is entirely satisfactory.

My project is simple: New Zealand media people on Twitter. I want to turn the list into a simple relational database. So someone like myself who has worked as an editor and journalist in newspapers and magazines could be listed under all four tags and not in the existing group headings.

How do the PC database applications fare?

Easy Access

Microsoft Access 2007 starts out easy. I pulled the html from my website into Excel 2007 and exported the list into Access. Once there it took little time to build a basic relational database.

The tagging isn’t perfect, but the relational database aspect of the Access exercise went like clockwork. There were difficult moments looking things up in the extensive, but not always navigable online help. It doesn’t help that Microsoft slips into its own personal language making it harder to extract help information than you’d expect.

Access lost the plot when it came to turning data into HTML.

If you looked at my example you’ll notice there’s a weird box around the table, the text TwitterAddresses Query and three column headings. These weren’t optional. I could have removed them manually – but that’s not the point. Getting the data out of Access and on my site was harder than expected.

FileMaker’s dirty HTML

If anything, getting clean HTML out of FileMaker Pro is harder – although I have discovered workarounds. What I haven’t yet found is an elegant way of making what is, after all, a simple relational database work properly.

When you have two lists and want to marry them in a one-to-many relationship it should be straightforward, but after two days of playing around I still haven’t found an elegant way of joining the two databases and creating social media-like tags.

Filemaker has a quirky way of allowing you to store multiple items in a single field as a return separated list, but converting this to a tidy HTML table isn’t trivial.

So there you have it two “easy to use” databases that aren’t that easy to use in practice.

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