30 Years Ago: The Rise, Fall and Survival of Ashton-Tate's dBASE

eWEEK 30: Ashton-Tate’s dBASE dominated the early PC database market until competitors stepped in to deliver follow-on products with enhanced features users were looking for.

Ashton-Tate's dBASE was one of the most popular early PC applications, as the Swiss Army Knife of databases when it first hit the market back in 1980.

Ashton-Tate began distributing the widely popular dBASE database management system (DBMS) for the CP/M operating system in 1980. Very quickly dBASE grew in popularity because of its simplicity and ease of use. It featured a database engine, query system, forms engine and a programming language—the dBASE language.

When IBM started shipping its PC in volume in 1982, Ashton-Tate responded by quickly porting dBASE to the platform and it became one of the few early professional programs for the PC, which only enhanced its popularity. In short, dBASE was another one of those killer apps that demonstrated the effectiveness of the IBM PC.

Typical of many high-tech startups of the time, Ashton-Tate started as a garage-based operation and grew to become one of the top three PC application software producers of its time, next to Lotus and WordPerfect—with Microsoft in the mix, as well.

Founded in 1980 by George Tate and Hal Lashlee, Ashton-Tate took what had been developed as a simple program to run an office football pool and parlayed it into a multimillion-dollar, multinational company. Ashton-Tate licensed the rights to a database program called Vulcan from its author Wayne Ratliff, who was an employee at the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Vulcan ran on CP/M and was based on JPL/DIS, a public domain program at JPL. Besides CP/M and IBM/MS-DOS, dBASE was also ported to the Apple II.

The dBASE language enabled ease of development of custom apps, which made the database a favorite among not only hobbyists and power users, but also programmers, value-added resellers (VARs) and corporate app developers. VARs made whole businesses out of dBASE development and many companies adopted it as their standard PC database.

dBASE used a runtime interpreter architecture, which allowed the user to execute commands by typing them in a command line "dot prompt." Upon typing a command or function and pressing the return key, the interpreter would immediately execute or evaluate it. Moreover, program scripts ran in the interpreter, where each command and variable was evaluated at runtime. This made dBASE programs easy to write and test because programmers didn't have to first compile and link them before running them.

"dBASE was used to build multi-user business apps," said Philippe Kahn, CEO of Fullpower Technologies and former CEO and co-founder of Borland International, which acquired Ashton-Tate and dBASE in 1991. Users worked with the apps and "most never knew about dBASE. It was a corporate market," he noted.

In an article entitled "A Personal History of dBASE," Jean-Pierre Martel, wrote, "Because its programming language was so easy to learn, millions of people were dBASE programmers without knowing it. To use Randy Solton's words: 'In essence, dBASE brought programming power to the masses.' This popularity spawned a cottage industry of dBASE compilers or clones. dBXL, QuickSilver, Arago, Clipper and Force allowed developers to compile dBASE-III Plus programs into DOS exe files. FoxBase was a clone that was faster than the original."