Microsoft Office for Windows 95, and Access in particular, was a disappointment. Okay, it was 32-bit, and it threw in some neat functionality, but it was nothing like the step forward we could have hoped for.
Now we're onto the next release, and my feelings are mixed. The good news is that Access 97 is a considerable improvement over its predecessor.
It's just as well - I find that most of the Access development work I do, even for corporates who have taken the plunge into Windows 95, remains in Access 2, because that's what they trust. Now, even though Access 97 isn't all it should be, it's at least what Access 95 should have been, and there is perhaps an excuse to move on.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first - Access hasn't been fully integrated into the Office family. The other main applications use the excellent VBA5 forms engine to design and generate forms, but Access is left with the old relic that dates back effectively to version 1. It is also excluded from the WordArt drawing layer shared by the other main applications, so you can't jazz up forms and reports anywhere near as easily.
But don't abandon Access 97 yet. There is a more promising side. Access has two clear types of users, the simplistic database builders who rarely stray outside wizards, and programmers who use it as a development environment for data-centred applications. The programmers are likely to be the happier bunnies despite the forms engine, but there are some basic improvements too. It feels decidedly nippier than Access 95, given the sensible minimum of 24Mb of memory. This may due to changes that prevent loading software components and modules unless they are needed.
Internet support has been beefed up in a big way. Much of this revolves around integrated facilities for importing HTML tables and exporting to HTML. In fact, exporting now utilises a "publish to the Web" wizard to offer a wide range of options. Apart from traditional HTML, if your Web server is Microsoft's IIS, you can choose the HTX/IDC format to link live data from your Access database through to the Web site. Alternatively, if you've got IIS3 or later, you can move to the ASP live connection approach that allows your Access forms to be used via appropriate ActiveX controls.
For an intranet particularly, this is an impressive possibility. As a final bit of hand-holding, the wizard can also pop the results onto your (IIS) Web server for you. You can also link to data on an FTP server, and the hyperlinks which are so useful in the rest of Office 97 also crop up, enabling live hyperlinks, whether to Web sites or other Office documents, to be held in a database.
There'll be a sigh of relief in the year 2000 planning office when Access 97 is installed. Although the basic date handling was already capable of running past 2000, the problem was with the interpretation of a short date such as 12/3/02. Previous versions of Access would have assumed this was 1902. Now, years up to 29 are assumed to be in the 21st century, while bigger numbers are attributed to the 20th - a reasonable compromise.
Although it's a small thing, a feature I've already made considerable use of is the right click filter. Right click in a form or sheet field and one of the menu items is "Filter for:". This is followed by a text box within the menu to type into. Type a selection and it is instantly applied, the fastest way yet to perform a simple filter. Another small but handy feature is being able to compact or repair an open database, rather than go through the traditional faff of closing it down first.
For those building applications for others to use, the new MDE database format will be attractive. This removes the Visual Basic source, and the ability to open forms and reports in design mode, making something close to a runtime version that can still be used with full-blown Access.
For developers, there are some rich pickings. Like the rest of Office 97, Access now features the Office Assistant and the new look toolbars and menus. All these are controllable from your Access code, so you can use the Office Assistant to prompt your users, or make up one of the fancy new toolbar/menu flexible controls without the old, messy macro approach.
The biggest change, though, results from the move to VBA5. This brings in the class module, familiar to Visual Basic users, and provides a whole new coding environment.
At first glance, the VBA environment is a trifle confusing, because it no longer imposes the (artificial) restraint of earlier code windows, separating each function or subroutine into a separate window. Instead, the code is continuous with lines dividing the procedures. However, (since Access 95) the code is much more readable, with clearer text, and colour automatically applied to comments, keywords and the like. When you begin to type in new code, the environment is very helpful. Type a function, and a pop-up specifies the parameters. Refer to an object and a list of appropriate properties, methods, objects and constants appears. This can be particularly useful when you are referring to an external object.
Debugging is also better supported. When you hit a break in the code, simply moving the cursor over a variable displays its value in a pop-up (though unfortunately this doesn't extend to references to form and database fields). The debug window now contains a "locals" pane, which shows the values of all variables and can be used to navigate the current module (for instance, the current form), investigating all the properties and fields. A new debug menu pulls together the debugging commands, while the options for compilation are extended as well.
Once a developer has taken VBA5 on board, a wonderful extra becomes available.
Because of the common use of VBA5, solid OLE automation and the development of decent object models, Office has finally become the powerful toolkit that Microsoft has claimed it to be for a while.
As a simple example, I was writing a system that needed to output Word documents from the database. With old Access, I would have created a report, then exported it to a Word file. The result would be a crude copy, lacking most of the formatting of the original. In Office 97, it's easy. From a button in Access I can fire off Word, generate a new document with all the formatting from a template, and squirt in the data. I don't even need to be an expert in the Word object model: I can record the Word actions into Word's VBA, then paste them into Access. All it takes to make the code work is adding a prefix associating it with a Word object.
Access 97 is not as thrilling as it could have been, but it's a solid step forward, particularly in gaining VBA5, and it is joined by a set of partner applications that can at last act as transparent extensions.
This could be the time to take a deep breath, ensure you've got enough RAM (don't bother with less than 24Mb for Office 97) and take the leap from Access 2.
CONTACT AND PRODUCT INFORMATION
Access 97 is available from Microsoft's Web site www.microsoft.com or by phoning 0345 002000. Access is available as part of the Office 97 Pro suite at #450 with upgrades at #279. (Note that some of the cannier retailers will sell you a mega-cheap product plus the upgrade for considerably less than the full suite price.) It can also be bought standalone for #277.81, or as an upgrade for #107.25.
VERDICT: Access 97
- Rest of Office as toolkit
- Good Internet features
- Good all-round improvements
- Tatty old forms engine
- Other cross-application features missing.
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