The Lack of a Small Unified Database
Many desktop users do not have the skills or, frankly, any real need to install and manage a multiuser database server. They still need, however, to use and exchange SQL databases. Unfortunately, many developers fail to see this situation as a problem and dismiss it, at least initially, with any combination of these responses:
It now is so easy to install PostgreSQL, MySQL or any other RDBMS server, desktop users should install one of them.
Program X also is available for Windows/Mac/whatever, so just install it.
If anything, we only need to improve the interface and/or the documentation to do the above.
Nothing technically is wrong with these arguments, but they simply don't apply to the niche sector of soho and corporate users. Nobody in this sector is whining because installing a server requires two or one mouse click instead of zero. But there is a huge difference between a perfect, completely documented install wizard for any SQL server and what those users currently are getting.
Everybody says how great file sharing is. Okay, so answer this one: how can a Linux/KOffice geek share his book or recipe database with his aunt, who is running Windows/OO.o? How can an employee send a product database from his MAC/OO.o desktop to a potential corporate customer running Solaris/KOffice? What if the receiver has no root password or permission to install extra software, the standard situation in most offices? In general, in the real world, the "just install and configure this" attitude doesn't make sense and doesn't help information to flow freely. This attitude can be just as impractical, if not impossible, as having to install a new font or print server simply to open a text file.
Currently, free software users are missing a single-file SQL standard format, which may be a tar or ZIP archive, that contains everything needed by a generic frontend to let people work: schemas, data, indexes, forms structures and so on. Such databases could be copied immediately, uploaded to a Web server or sent by e-mail, the same as any other file. Users would have the certainty that the receiver immediately could access all the data, queries and forms, even if they might look different. Above all, it would be great if such a file format became an OASIS standard, because it would make it much easier to accept in corporate or government scenarios.
In the text/spreadsheet/presentation space, the Right Thing already is happening. The two most popular free office software suites, OO.o and KOffice, are converging on the same default file format, which is an OASIS standard. This means being able to write, read and share such documents today between OO.o KOffice and tomorrow with any other OASIS-compliant application--transparently. This level of standardization also gives much more credibility and strength to Free Software.
Wouldn't it be really great and isn't it time to do the same thing for simple SQL databases? Without, of course, preventing anybody who wants a full blown RDBMS daemon from using it? Today, such databases are not covered or influenced by OASIS. I say that they should be. The rest of this article proposes a way to achieve this goal.
The first two applications that should converge on this database standard are OpenOffice.org (OO.o) and KOffice. OO.o has data sources, meaning it can connect to external RDBMS servers and can use single-file databases in dBase format, whose features simply are too limited. When I started to investigate this matter, I learned that OO.o developers already have begun working on improving support for a server-less database engine. Standardization, however, simply isn't among their objectives right now, though. What they anticipate today to include in OO.o 2.0 (alpha snapshot available here) is a database file format that is XML-based and that contains everything except the actual data (forms, reports, queries and administrative information).
When I asked, I was told that the most probable file format choice is HSQLDB, mainly because it supports more features than its competitors do. Personally, I am against this choice for four reasons. The first is performance (read more here and here), especially considering that OO.o doesn't need to remain as heavy as it is today. The second reason is HSQLDB requires Java, and I don't like the idea of depending on third-party elements, as it makes it more likely that these single-file DBs don't work in practice when moved from PC to PC. The third reason is many other application and languages in the free software arena have partially converged on something else (more on this in a moment), so I think OO.o should be a good community citizen and follow suit. Hence, my fourth reason: by not proposing a portable standard in OO.o, OO.o users would be in the position of saying to everybody else "yes, we are using this so called "free" software, but if you want to share small databases transparently, please force yourself to freely install OO.o, HSQLDB/Java or any combination of the above".
Articles about Digital Rights and more at http://stop.zona-m.net CV, talks and bio at http://mfioretti.com
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August 27, 2015
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