The Application is You

In the dark times (when businesses had offices, LANs and lunchrooms) it was quite common to see MS Access applications. Or FileMaker for the posh businesses. They’d be shared via SMB on the local network. Some of these networks didn’t run TCP/IP.

The hallmark of these Access apps was forms. Forms for everything. The warehouse staff didn’t need to know about the scheme of your Stock table. Bob in Sales didn’t need to know about the date format in the Products table.

These standalone Database apps have mostly had their day (though I worked with an IT contractor in London who insisted that it was the company standard to use Access to join SQL Server tables).

I’ve noticed that the rise of Google Apps and Office 365 has given us a new approach: staff create spreadsheets for their needs, and then use no forms at all: just a spreadsheet shared over Google Docs or SharePoint, with no validation or triggers. Input is totally free-form because it’s just a spreadsheet. Attempting to put an app on front of these data stores would fail because the data is terrible. Ask me how I know.

Have we regressed past Access?

In theory, no: Microsoft provide Power Apps, and Google provide App Maker. But the big challenge here is to make it easy to replace millions of small business spreadsheets with apps that integrate with a more connected world (“Bob just joined the company, send him the AUP”) and in such a way that a small business team can maintain it. Most people can manage tabular data in a spreadsheet, badly.

Until we solve that problem, the application is you.