Insider Perspective: Is Microsoft Access still a useful product?

A personal review by Paradise Computing's MD, Jonathon Berg

Of all the applications in the Microsoft office suite, Access is probably the most ‘marmite’.

Originally developed in the early 1990s, Access was designed to be an accessible database tool for use in small businesses and corporate departments to undertake small-scale projects and to be successful in the Windows environment in the same way Ashton Tate’s dBase had been with the pre-Windows generation of personal computers.

Right from the outset, Access received a mixed reception.

Some professionals welcomed it with its ‘database application in a box’ appeal and the inclusion of the then ground-breaking Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). However, others viewed it with disdain or contempt, as a potentially dangerous tool being provided to all classes of computer user with little regard for standards or security. If the original designers expected it to be used by IT departments to provide access to larger-scale database systems like Oracle and Sybase they would be disappointed, as most users were either small businesses developing databases like membership systems or corporate departments filling gaps in their IT systems while awaiting ‘proper’ solutions that might be months or years away from deployment.

This led to two further bad reputations for Access.

In the case of small business, the Access applications were often developed by individuals with no database or application design experience. This led to some horrendous system designs with no regard for normalised data structures or relational rules alongside simply dreadful colour-schemes of bright blues, oranges and greens that made using the interface an afront to good taste. Even worse, these systems often grew over a period of years and could involve several different authors so that the final product was unintelligible and full of poorly validated data. At this stage database professionals might be called in to help, and their handwringing and hair-pulling would be blamed on Access for allowing the situation to occur.

In the case of larger companies using Access, the practice was (and still is) generally frowned upon by the central IT function, as it operates outside the scope of control of the IT department - which can mean data security may be circumvented along with internal standards regarding things like data security and GDPR. Worse still, Access is fairly good at attaching to external data sources and can be used to update data in bulk – a dangerous capability if linked to any of the central IT systems and being controlled by an IT amateur.

It is for these reasons, together with the haphazard nature of Access itself with nearly, but not quite SQL data types and not quite fully implemented development languages, that have combined to give Access its poor reputation. Yet despite this, it is still a core product in the Microsoft Office line-up in 2022 and it still attracts a diverse fan base of users and developers, together with dedicated interest groups like the Access User Group (UKAUG – UK Access User Group).

The reason for this is Access’ ability to adapt, and the role of Access has shifted in recent years. In larger businesses, an increase in standards and a locking-down of data has pretty much seen the end of department-level development - although small businesses and organisations still frequently use it for their small-scale databases. Meanwhile, Access has evolved to new roles. One of these new roles is as a staging post, to hold large volumes of data between systems, either during upgrades or as a long-term intermediary. The database processing is not the fastest, but the database structures and applications are quick to build and, as a part of Microsoft Office, often free-of-charge to deploy. Another common use seen now is use as a reporting tool. Rather than allowing users direct access to production systems, data can be quickly copied out into Access and manipulated there, without risk of data changes or placing any workload on the main system. Its close integration to the rest of Office is also a real strength, enabling easy automation of emails and appointments in Outlook, documents in Word and generating reports (i.e. spreadsheets) in Excel. This isn’t to say other development tools can’t do these tasks, it is just so easy in Microsoft Access.

The trend to use an Access front end for a SQL database is also on the rise.

Merging the speed, power and security of a SQL database with the rapid development and ease of change of the Access application. It is hampered by being a Windows-only deployment, but is without doubt the fastest way to achieve that.

Expanding on the theme of being a SQL front end, prototyping is another role, where the outline of a database-centred application can be developed quickly for presentation and testing before a full-blown application development takes place. Unfortunately, this can also lead to the prototype in Access becoming the full-blown application, another reason is can attract the ire of development purists.

In terms of the future, where is Access going to go?  

It had been expected to die quite a number of times, a few years ago with a failed attempt by Microsoft to replace it with the ill-fated “Lightswitch”, then the failed attempt to upgrade Access to a web-based application and more recently to replace it with the awful Teams-based database “Dataflex”. In the past few years, development tools have been released by Microsoft to work with data including Power BI, Power Apps and Blazor. However, Access stubbornly refuses to go away and has itself evolved to address this with faster SQL connections. Despite not being web-based and having no native form-scaling capability it remains the go-to tool for a lot of IT professionals wanting a quick cut and slice of SQL data. I should know – I am one of them.

Microsoft’s U-turn on dropping Access from Office originally planned for 2018 shows there is life in the old dog yet – probably simply because, despite many efforts, there is no decent replacement. Power Apps are relatively immature and costly so there is no ‘sort-of-free’ relational database that anyone with a smattering of technical knowledge can quickly get to grips with that has the power and reach Access has. In my opinion, Access will still be part of Office in five years’ time, and will still be scorned by the real developers!

For more information or advise on bespoke software design solutions to suit your business, call Paradise Computing on 01604 655900 or send us a message using our online contact form.

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