Sep 9, 2022

(+) Where is Genealogy Software Headed?

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

NOTE: This article contains personal opinions.

I have been using genealogy programs for 38 years. In 1984, I started with Family Ties, a program written by Neil Wagstaff. I ran it on a homemade CP/M computer with two 8-inch floppy disk drives and a huge memory capacity of 64 kilobytes. No, that is not a typo error: those were 8-inch floppy disks drives. Many of today’s computer users have never seen an 8-inch floppy disk although the later 5 1/2-inch disks became quite popular and then were replaced by 3 1/2-inch floppy disks.

Over the years, I kept upgrading both the hardware and the software in use. I upgraded from the CP/M operating system to MS-DOS, then to Windows 2.0 and through a series of Windows releases: 3.0, 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, Windows 2000 (which I still believe is the best version of Windows ever released), Windows XP and I briefly used Windows Vista. In fact, after using Vista for a few weeks, I got rid of it and switched to Macintosh OS X. I never looked back, until recently. While I have kept both Windows and Macintosh systems but found that Macintosh was more reliable and easier to use for most tasks. However, four years ago I switched again. Today I use a mix of operating systems: Macintosh, Chromebook, Android, and Linux. However, I keep my genealogy data online: in the cloud.

Along the way, I have used many different genealogy programs: Family Ties, Genealogy on Display, The Family Edge, Personal Ancestral File (versions 1, 2, 3, and 4), Roots II, Roots III, Roots IV, Roots V, Family Origins, Legacy Family Tree, RootsMagic, The Master Genealogist, Reunion, Heredis, MacFamilyTree, and Family Tree Builder. I have also used GRAMPS (on Linux), Ged-Star (for Palm handheld computers), The Pocket Genealogist (for Windows Mobile handheld computers) as well as The Next Generation and PhpGedView, both of which store their databases on web servers. Because of articles I have written in this newsletter in the past twenty-six years and in other online publications prior to the newsletter, I have also briefly used many other genealogy programs and have written reviews of them.

I won’t claim to be an expert but I do think I am experienced at a wide variety of genealogy programs. I also believe that I can see some trends. Today, I thought I would write about those trends and even attempt to forecast the future. I won’t go too far into the future, perhaps five years or so.

Why Do We Use Genealogy Software?

To organize our research findings! Indeed, most genealogy programs are used simply as repositories for our findings. We conduct genealogy searches in any of many ways and record the results in a program that is essentially a database along with specialized data entry software and reporting capabilities of various sorts.

NOTE: The Master Genealogist is arguably the only genealogy program that is a research tool; it helps organize your research efforts BEFORE conducting searches. All other programs I can think of are designed to record the RESULTS of your research efforts. Unfortunately, The Master Genealogist is no longer available. The producing company, Wholly Genes Software, is no longer in business.

The Past Thirty Years

Thirty years ago, we had a variety of programs that would help enter our data, store it, sort it, analyze it, and print it out in a variety or reports. In those days, each genealogist maintained his or her own data on a personal floppy disk or on a hard drive, with data typically maintained by one person. Each genealogist’s database was a separate “island” of data. There was no method of easily comparing the data stored on one computer’s database against data stored on other personal computers. To be sure, there were a plethora of manual methods, such as reading microfilms, comparing notes with others at genealogy society meetings, or comparing notes with others on various message boards. However. all these efforts were manual thirty years ago.

Let’s compare our methodologies of thirty years ago with those of today. Indeed, we have seen major improvements in hardware. Computer speed, storage capabilities, and graphics have all advanced to levels that most of us never dreamed of more than a quarter century ago. Operating systems have also advanced greatly: we now have user-friendly methods that provide amazing computer power to non-technical users. Moving a mouse and clicking in a window environment is far easier to use than the old command line interfaces that we all used in the 1980s and early 1990s. There has been one other rather significant invention in the past 25 years: the World Wide Web.

In 2009, I wrote a comparison of genealogy software of 1984 to that of 2009. Reading those words today is a bit sobering experience. In 2009, I wrote:

Twenty-five years ago, we had a variety of programs that would help enter our data, store it, sort it, analyze it, and print it out in a variety or reports. In those days, each genealogist maintained his or her own data on a personal hard drive, with data typically maintained by one person. Each genealogist’s database was a separate ‘island’ of data.

When I look at the programs of 2009, I see very little change. To be sure, today’s programs are easier to use, they often have reporting capabilities not available 25 years ago (Register Report with included pictures, wall charts, etc.) and even have multimedia scrapbooks of images, sound bytes, and even movies. However, the primary functionality of today’s genealogy programs seems to have changed little in twenty-five years!

While there are some improvements, the primary functions of most of today’s genealogy programs consists of:

The ability to manually enter data

Store the data (on admittedly larger hard drives)

Sort the data in a variety of ways

Analyze the data

Print the stored data in a variety of formats

Each genealogist still maintains his or her own data on a personal hard drive

Each genealogist’s database is a separate “island” of data

What has changed? Not much!

Like Bill Murray in a movie of a few years ago, we are stuck at Groundhog Day forever. Even worse, now that another 9 years has gone by, genealogy software hasn’t changed all that much. We are still stuck in Groundhog Day forever!

Let’s compare 2022 to 1984:

Operating systems: significant improvements

Data input: little change

Data exchange between dissimilar programs: little change, we are still using GEDCOM

Reporting: has been improved significantly

Ease of access to data: has improved significantly but still cannot automatically import into our local databases.

Today’s Databases: Islands

What has changed

We have a wonderful series of inventions, starting with the Internet, then the World Wide Web, and now the latest version that is generally called “the cloud.” These are all improvements of the same thing: a worldwide network containing all sorts of resources.

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