30 Years Ago: The Rise, Fall and Survival of Ashton-Tate's dBASE
The PC version of dBASE launched as "dBASE II" to give buyers the impression that it was a second edition product that had any initial bugs ironed out. In 1983, Ashton-Tate released dBASE II RunTime, which allowed developers to write dBASE applications and then distribute them to customers without their needing to purchase the "full" version of dBASE. This was a hit with VARs. Then, in May 1984, the company shipped dBASE III, a major upgrade of the program, which was written in C rather than in assembly language like previous versions. This enabled porting to other platforms such as Unix and VMS, but it brought with it the issue of legacy code, which becomes problematic for any popular system if not handled correctly. In 1986, Ashton-Tate delivered dBASE III+, which featured character-based menus for ease of use. The product did well, and the company's sales reached $300 million in 1987. However, some of the ease of use and simplicity of dBASE came back to bite Ashton-Tate because users began demanding more complex applications, which required enhanced programming features and better performance. Thus, competitors came in to fill the void with compilers and clones of the popular database that included such features as user-defined functions. These competitors included Fox Software's FoxBase and Nantucket's Clipper.dBASE IV version 1.1 did not ship until July 1990, but by then it was too late. Ashton-Tate was looking for a suitor. The company had held merger discussions with Lotus and had entertained deals with other prominent software companies of the time, including Cullinet, Computer Associates, Informix, Symantec and Microsoft. In the end, Ashton-Tate went to Borland for $439 million in September 1991, which was ironic because Borland already had a popular database, Paradox, which competed with dBASE. However, Borland's plan was to position dBASE as its high-end database and Paradox as its end-user database. But the pricing for the two products didn't reflect that positioning as Paradox carried a high price tag. "dBASE was the leading installed database solution on PCs, and Borland's Paradox the technology leader," Kahn told eWEEK. "Borland had the best technology, but we couldn't penetrate some of the database-driven corporate applications." Reviews of Paradox, which Borland acquired through its 1987 buyout of Ansa Software, were very positive, particularly among programmer types. But, as Kahn said, Borland couldn't penetrate the corporate market deeply enough to make an impact.
Meanwhile, Ashton-Tate released dBASE IV in late 1988. However, the product was late and did not include a compiler as the company had promised. It also was slow and buggy, which disappointed customers. The product received bad reviews, and sales began to drop as customers moved to alternatives. Ashton-Tate, which held 63 percent of the PC database market in 1988, saw its share drop to 43 percent in 1989; the result was layoffs as the company.