Looking Back: Database Development with Microsoft

Many careers require you to update or reinvent yourself on a regular basis. Expert programmers turn into beginners again every three years or so as their software tools, methodologies, and paradigms change.

So I certainly wasn’t surprised when after several months away from the Microsoft Visual FoxPro page I ran across an announcement from (April 2007 no less):

We are announcing today that there will be no VFP 10. VFP 9 will continue to be supported according to our existing policy with support through 2015. We will be releasing SP2 for Visual FoxPro 9 this summer as planned, providing fixes and additional support for Windows Vista.

The oddly-named FoxPro has had a good run. I started using it I think around 1988 when I first took a job at the University of Vermont in their Continuing Education division, setting up Novell networks and maintaing a couple of FoxPro applications that had been written over the previous couple of months. FoxPro really started out as a complier for dBase code. DBase was one of the first, if not the first relational database programs created to be used with desktop computers. DBase, an interpreted language, was slow and quirky, but if I recall, I actually got a couple applications going with it. Some years after dBase was created, Clipper came out. Clipper could compile dBase code into machine language which could then be run natively on the computer without an interpreter. Clipper had no user interface to speak of, you still had to do the development in dBase, then take the dBase files and run them through Clipper by running batch files.

FoxPro was developed by David Fulton as an improvement over Clipper. It included a user interface for development and allowed you to create one for the end-user. It was less expensive than dBase or Clipper and had terrific performance. I started with version 2.0 right after it had come out, and by the time they were up to version 3.0 they had a program to create sophisticated user interfaces with overlapping windows. The programs would work in both Windows and Unix, and at one point there was support for the Macintosh.

More on this ancient history is available on the FoxPro Wiki.

[pause to take unsolicited spam phone call in heavily accented English from Ravi via what must be a bad VoIP connection to solicit IT services]

Fox Software was bought by Microsoft in 1992. For awhile they maintained a DOS version, but they were keen on developing a version for Windows. This appeared to be before Access or SQL-Server had any major marketing traction. There were other desktop databases, and Microsoft may have felt that they needed to have a dog (er, fox) in that particlar fight. In particular, one competitor was Borland Paradox, which had a terrific user interface and query system. Borland was also competing with development tools and languages.

FoxPro-for-Windows, renamed Visual FoxPro, became a major development system for deploying desktop database applications. Paradox never made an effective transfer from DOS to Windows, although it still exists in the WordPerfect suite.

FoxPro isn’t dead though. There is a conference happening in October, and as the announcement says, there will be support until 2015. Version 9.0 will receive some updates to help it integrate well with the dominant Microsoft dot-net technologies. For interactive querying and data manipulation, it remains a wonderful tool.

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