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  1. The Limits of Access
  2. Build, Buy, or the Third Path
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Build, Buy, or the Third Path

Although simple Access design isn’t difficult, getting help can save a lot of time, particularly if you need to perform a common job such as maintaining a mailing or membership list. A number of Access applications are available for such jobs, at prices ranging from free to reasonable. Unless you value your time at just about nothing, or you want to gain experience with Access, it makes more sense to buy an application rather than write it in Access.

Use Off-the-Shelf Applications

The available applications in Access range from simple and general to complex and specialized.

Image Albums from Jamie’s Software creates databases of images. Unlike thumbnail generators, Image Albums attaches images to Access database entries, which can contain a great deal of information about the image and can be categorized and searched using Access commands. At $34.95, Image Albums is inexpensive enough to be used by amateur photographers organizing their snapshots, but the product is really aimed at scientists, graphic designers, medical professionals, and others who need to maintain detailed databases of visual information.

At the more specialized end of the spectrum are products like Baarns Consulting Group’s RoomTracker, an Access-based scheduler that keeps track of conference room use for law firms. It can track conference rooms at multiple offices as well as handling scheduling of elaborate multi-party video conferences.

A number of tools are designed to make life easier for administrators who have to handle Access databases and applications. For example, AccessFix from Cimaware Software repairs Access databases by rebuilding corrupted data tables, indices, macros, relations, queries, and reports—even if the database can’t be opened.

There are even tools to let users extract information and generate reports more easily. Visual Access, from DataQwest Technologies, lets users generate SQL-based queries and reports from a graphical interface by pointing and clicking. While the product requires an understanding of how a relational database works, the user doesn’t need to know how to write SQL queries to produce fairly elaborate results.

Build Your Own Apps

The discussion so far assumes that you can find an Access application that will do just what you want. A lot of the time, you can’t. In that case, you have to customize an existing application by writing some code, or write your own applications using third-party component libraries.

Third-party components can save you a lot of time, especially if you can find ones that handle the tricky or tedious parts of your job. Doing statistical analysis? Total Access Statistics from FMS Inc. automatically generates the code to run statistical functions in an Access application, including ANOVA, chi-square, T-test versus mean, and skewness.

Some companies specialize in Access programming tools. Peter’s Software offers a wide range of Access utilities, controls, and other tools. One example is Proximity Functions for MS Access, a set of freeware Access modules that offers Windows-style functions for jobs such as browsing folders and opening files, as well as a calendar, color picker, and other tools.

Hire It Out

A third way to get an Access application is to have someone else write all or part of it for you. Access developers and consultants offer everything from complete development in Access to hand-holding and tweaking that can help you develop your own Access applications more effectively.

Even if you’re fairly competent in Access, specialists are a big help with some jobs. For example, many of them are experienced in converting custom-developed Access applications to SQL Server. Hiring an outsider can also help you avoid the dreaded "quicksand effect." You come up with an application and zip along using Access wizards and forms. But it doesn’t quite do what you wanted, so you add more features or exception handling and keep pressing on. The next thing you know, you’re neck-deep in the swamp with alligators nibbling at your back pockets.

Careful, detailed design before you start coding will help to mitigate the quicksand effect—or at least let you know what you’re getting into—but the fact is that even the best development environment has limits. If you’re not familiar with the environment, you’re likely to find out the hard way where those limits are—unless you’re working with someone who does know those limits and can advise you on how to work around them.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about Access is that when it comes to development, you’re not alone. From prewritten applications through components and utilities to independent developers, there’s a rich vein of help out there to let you do what you need to do while staying in your comfort zone.

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