Sunday, April 20, 2014

Working with MS Access 2013 Web Apps - The Good

Back in 2009 I joined a group of smart Access users, developers, and technical guide writers in Redmond to preview Access 2010.  The software was supposedly in Alpha phase, but from the look of it, and the way the program managers described most features as locked, I'd say it was closer to a GA preview.  The software felt like a first model year car, not quite the full vision the maker had, and rough around the edges.

I've spent perhaps 20-25 hours all told developing in Access 2010 for the web.  Mostly for internal use, but some for a client.  It does the basic job, but the web forms lack flexibility and finish.  Access 2013 has made some large improvements, the Access team really took a fresh approach.  That is saying something when Access 2010 wasn't even really on the market for more than 2 years.  Overall, the product is much improved for web applications.  In some areas they went backward in terms of functionality, but by improving several key areas, the loss of functionality isn't felt as strongly.

So what are some features of Access 2013 web apps that you'll appreciate

  1. Better support for master-detail type forms.  While a database is meant to efficiently store information, that shouldn't come at the sacrifice of usability.  Access 2010 web apps were hard to easily show related information.  It was possible with effort, but Access 2013 makes it effortless.  In fact, it automatically shows related information in areas much like a subform.  And it supports subforms as well just like 2010.
  2. More control over security.  You can configure, straight from the Access client, whether to allow read/write connections to the tables, and whether it is limited to just one location or anywhere on the internet (security credentials are still required of course).
  3. Modern styling and user interaction.  Access 2010 relied mostly on dropdowns, and styling was mundane.  You had a lot of control over things like font size/color/style, and coloring and conditional formatting of cells and areas on screen.  Access 2013 drops most of that (more on that later).  But while you lose control of the minutae, I expect it will return in the future, and Microsoft incorporated things like auto-complete text areas, elegant form styling, and a limited but passable icon library.
  4. Publishing without anger.  Access 2010 publishing was somewhat like trying to start a manual car uphill as a new driver.  Sometimes it would work, sometimes not.  It takes a lot of effort, you don't always know if you're going to do it right, and when it failed, you didn't know what exactly to do to make things right before sliding backward.  Access 2013 did a few things right, despite dropping flexibilty.  (A) There is no more blurred line between desktop and web tables and forms, so you can't get into trouble as you did in 2010, (B) Hitting save = publishing immediately to the web.  No more hitting "synchronize" and crossing your fingers.  It just works.  (C) No more compatibility checker with confusing, misleading messages.  Say that one 20 times over.
There are some things that will bring frustration and cursing, I'll cover those in the next part of this series.