Monthly Archives: October 2008

Computer Collecting

Friends who have seen my electronics warehouse, err.. basement, know that I’m an avid collector of “antique” electronics. From the 8-Track recorder, yes you heard that right not just an 8-Track player, but a recorder, to my collection of cell phones and landline phones my interest in history seems to manifest itself in collecting bits of history.

As an information technology professional I think it’s both important and useful to realize how I got to where I am. For me this means both the people like “Mr. C” my elementary school computer teacher who showed me the inside of an Apple //e and taught me the fundamentals of computing as well as those early machines I worked with. This means that it has been one of my personal goals to collect some of those influential machines from my early years. A fun side benefit is the ability to play the games and software I remember from my youth on real hardware instead of an emulator.

This means that I also have quite a collection of computers in my basement, primarily Motorola 68k Macs and a few Commodores. I’ve even gone so far as to have similar minded geek friends over for a LAN party consisting of these early Macs in a LocalTalk environment. Nothing like a good game of Wagon Train 1848 (multiplayer Oregon Trail) to get things going!

Because of these interests I try to stay on top of what’s going on in vintage computing circles, subscribe to several mailing lists and visit quite a few websites devoted to the topic. There’s something to be said for experimenting with computers just to see what can be done even though it may not be practical (LocalTalk to Ethernet bridge for Internet access from a 512K Mac anyone?) though it seems to be something that occurs less frequently these days.

I recently ran across 1000BiT, a website devoted to vintage computing which I had not seen before. 1000BiT is a great website for finding everything you can related to a specific vintage computer in one place. From system specs to original advertising, brochures and manuals they’ve got it covered. It’s a great stroll through personal computing history and an easy place to get lost in for hours as you pour over the specs and adverts which built an empire.

The Open Source Microsoft Access Alternative

Databases are a wonderful tool for organizing all those bits of information in your life. While open source technology took database backend technology by storm (MySQL anyone?) there remains a gap in desktop database technology. Let’s say you wanted to create a database for your address book. You could certainly do it in MySQL and write a PHP front end for it and make it web based but this really seems like overkill for a personal address book, it also seems like a lot of work.

You could also do it in a spreadsheet program but you give up a lot of advantages of a database (especially a relational database) when you do so. In an effort to fill this void between the massive SQL database with frontend application and the spreadsheet Microsoft offers Microsoft Access. This is both a banckend database engine and a frontend design package in one which allows you to generate forms for updating data as well as reports. As a bonus if your database is too big for it’s engine you can connect via ODBC to a bigger backend such as SQL.

Unfortunately, this segment of database tools has been largely overlooked by open source software, especially in the Windows environment. This is probably not without reason as middle-level database tools like this, even Microsoft Access, are often too complicated for most end users and too limiting for most developers. In fact, if you asked many Microsoft Office users what the “Access” program does they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you. Still, if you need a quick database form for entering data it’s tough to beat this type of application. Perhaps the most widely known open source office suite, OpenOffice, has has made an attempt at an Access alternative in their “Base” tool but, frankly, it leaves a lot to be desired.

A better choice is the KOffice program, Kexi. Like Microsoft Access, Kexi can serve as a combination backend/frontend or as a frontend to a remote backend database. Kexi provides scripting through the python and ruby languauges in addition to the basic tables, forms and reports. In fact, the only real problem with Kexi is that it is not available in an open source version for Windows.

Because KOffice relies on the Qt graphics toolkit it was not made available in an open source version on the Win32 platform. Recognizing the interest in an Access alternative Kexi was ported to Windows and a commercial version is available for $72. The winds of change are in the air though. Trolltech which makes the Qt toolkit has released the Windows version of their toolkit under the GPL meaning Qt based apps can now be made available in Windows under an open source license.

Based on this development the KDE developers have started porting applications, including KOffice and Kexi, over to Windows. Because of the large codebase and complex nature of KOffice it’s going to take a while to get things stable on Windows (they’re currently at Alpha 10) but someday in the not too distant future there will be a good open source alternative to Microsoft Access on Windows. You can see the progress being made and check out the alpha on the KDE for Windows site. In the meantime KOffice/Kexi is available for use on Linux and Mac.