Online Software Finally Gets Useful

Intuit's QuickBase offers a simple way to build databases. And it's affordable

At the peak of the dot-com frenzy, the tech industry got the notion that the Next Big Thing would be replacing software as we have known it with Web-based programs. Like so many other aspects of the boom, the concept of application service providers contained a solid idea within a billowing cloud of hype.

After trying several offerings for individuals and small businesses and finding all of them inadequate, I have finally come across an online application that makes sense. It's called QuickBase ( from Intuit (INTU), developer of Quicken and TurboTax and a pioneer in integrating Web-based features into conventional applications.

QuickBase offers a simple and inexpensive way to build databases, where you can store important information, organize it, and retrieve it for reports or analysis. Even the smallest business has vital data to track, such as customer and supplier lists and inventories. Tracking data can even be useful for hobbies: For example, I catalog both my library and a crafts collection in databases. Because of the cost and complexity of most database software, basic business data often end up in a spreadsheet, such as Microsoft Excel, which doesn't do well either at protecting data from accidental alteration or at generating business reports. Worse, information may end up as a simple list in a word processor. Access, part of the Professional version of Microsoft Office, is all but unusable without the services of a Visual Basic programmer. Even the much more tractable FileMaker Pro, which I use at home, can be intimidating--and costs more than $200 per computer for small groups.

Just about anyone should be able to afford QuickBase. You pay only to create a database: $14.95 a month for up to 15 databases, $49.95 for up to 50. An introductory offer allows creation of up to three databases without charge. Once the databases are created, you can give others the right to modify the records or just view them without charge.

The process is simple. Using a Web browser, you can create a database simply by clicking to name fields, or categories, where the information is stored. You can also use an assortment of the samples and templates provided. QuickBase uses Internet Explorer 5 for Windows or Macintosh. The program will run on Netscape Navigator, but performance will not be as good, and some advanced features won't work.

Two things distinguished QuickBase from other online applications I have tried. First, there's no software to download, not even a browser "plug-in." And it is really speedy. On a fast Internet connection, I could hardly tell the program wasn't running on my computer, and performance was acceptable even on a dial-up link.

QuickBase is not the answer for all data-management needs. It is intended for databases of up to a few thousand records. And it's what is known in database jargon as a "flat file" system. This means that all information is kept in a single file, rather than in the linked files used in a "relational" system. Splitting a complicated database into smaller, linked files makes it more efficient, but these links are hard to do right, and smaller databases are better off without them.

The biggest deficiency I found in QuickBase is the lack of entry validation. There is no way, for example, to prevent someone from entering a five-digit year or a six-digit phone number. For fixed choices, such as state names, you can make users pick from a list, but there is no way to control other formats. That makes it hard to prevent entry errors.

Another concern: Data that may be vital to your business are being stored online. Intuit has been handling online tax and investment data for several years without a loss of data or other incident, which should boost confidence in the company's ability to do the job safely. Still, it's a bit disturbing that Intuit follows the traditional software industry practice of disclaiming liability for anything that might happen to data for any reason, including flaws in Intuit's own programs.

If your data-management needs are relatively simple, QuickBase may well be a better and cheaper choice than other database managers. And as companies like Intuit get the hang of making online applications work, expect to see online programs become an increasingly practical alternative to desktop software.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.