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Microsoft Access 2007 Review

In some ways, Access has always been the odd kid brother in the Office clique. It was a little more complicated than its competitors (sometimes unnecessarily so); and when programs like FileMaker (probably its single largest competitor) started making serious strides in terms of power and functionality, Access started to look like an also-ran. Access 2007 features the new ribbon interface and some tremendously useful new ways to manage the way data is entered and procured, but it's still strongly oriented toward developers rather than end-users.

 

If you're not converting an existing Access database, one of the best ways to get working with the program immediately is to use one of the included database templates (there's a repository of templates available online from Microsoft as well ). One common complaint about earlier versions of Access was the lack of templates for common database applications, and that's been at least partly addressed here. Among the templates available on the release of the product will be an asset-tracking list, a contacts database, a to-do list or a business account ledger, and they're all malleable - you can use them as-is or customize them completely. The breadth of available templates isn't that great, but I'm hoping that'll change after Access is formally released.

More Consistent Interface
Access 2007 uses the ribbon interface pretty consistently, as it does with Word and (to a lesser degree) Outlook. It's a welcome change, since it removes that much more clutter from the interface and makes it easier to focus on the task at hand, whether it's data entry or editing the underlying schema.

 

Also, much of the way data is entered and managed has been moved closer to the way another Office cousin - Excel - behaves: You can jump in and start throwing data at it in a fairly freeform fashion, and normalize it later. Columns can be added to a table on the fly, and columns that are built on a value list can have list values edited interactively without having to switch to the Design view. If you're a stickler for having your data entered clean, though, you can always use Access's more rigid data-entry models.

The types of data that Access can handle have also been broadened; a generic "attachment" field lets you drop in a document of any kind as a column value. I also liked the way reports and forms can now be edited with live feedback: Instead of designing an unpopulated form, you can do the design work on a page that's populated with live data and see the results instantly. It's also easier to create things like groupings and sortings in a report - to that end, there's a new drag-and-drop tool that actually resembles the group/sort controller for Outlook's views.

There's little question that one of Access's best features is its connectivity to data in other Microsoft products. Excel tables, ODBC connectors, SQL Servers, and SharePoint Services sites can all be connected to and used as live data sources. One of Access 2007's new functions in this regard is the native ability to connect to and export an Access database to a SQL Server database - perfect if you're trying to up-migrate an existing set of Access databases and don't want to waste time figuring out how to import everything on the SQL Server side. Exporting to PDF or XPS is also possible, although as with Word, you have to download a plug-in for those formats; they're not available with the product by default.

Data Harvesting
One of the single best new features is the ability to automatically collect data from third parties by creating an HTML e-mail message and sending it to a list of recipients - either a list entered from Outlook or names from a database table. The returned e-mail needs to have its formatting preserved exactly, and the data harvesting only works properly with Outlook 2007, but the idea's sound and makes for a great way to poll people for information without setting up a server of some kind. In some ways it's a compensation for Access's lack of other data-publishing and -harvesting functions outside of a SharePoint Server setup.

 

Access's two big weaknesses are still prevalent. The first is the program's general audience, which is more developers than end users - although some of that has been abated with the new interface and the out-of-the-box templates.

The other big weakness is publishing Access data in anything other than a static file, which requires a lot of work. Apparently the only way to make data accessible interactively is through an Office SharePoint server, which is a fairly large investment of time and energy and money. (By contrast, FileMaker Pro can also function as a mini-Web server and allow people to connect directly to the database, input and edit data, and view live reports.)

Still, for committed Access gurus, the changes are probably going to be welcome since they do make the program all the easier to work with, and that much more powerful as well.

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