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.


  1. Access has the advantage of tight integration with the Office Suite and can make a very productive tool for advanced Office users.

    Why can’t there be a repository of VBA code that owners of MS Office can download/upload as an open source project?

    I know Access is not open source, but why can’t there be open source Access application? If all the code is freely available isn’t it open source?