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dBASE was the first widely used database application for microcomputers, published by Ashton-Tate for CP/M, and later on the Apple II and IBM PC under DOS where it became one of the best-selling software titles for a number of years. dBASE was never able to transition successfully to Microsoft Windows and was eventually displaced by newer products like Paradox and FoxPro. Ashton-Tate was later sold to Borland in 1991, which sold the rights to the product line in 1999 to the newly-formed dBASE Inc.


dBASE's history can be traced back to the mid-1960s in the form of a system called RETRIEVE, which was marketed by Tymshare Corporation. RETRIEVE was used by Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and in the late 1960s they asked one of their programmers, Jeb Long, to produce their own version. The result was JPLDIS (Jet Propulsion Laboratory Display Information System) which was written in the FORTRAN programming language and ran on their UNIVAC 1108 mainframes.

Long later ported JPLDIS to CP/M, renaming it dBASE. It was an instant success in that market, providing these small machines with database software the equal of that available on mainframes. The same basic software was then ported to a number of 8-bit computer platforms as dBASE-II, including the Apple II version which was released in 1980.

Sales were strong and allowed Long to form Ashton-Tate to produce and sell the product, hiring additional programmers. Wayne Ratliff then started a port to the 16-bit IBM PC, which was released as dBASE-II 2.3 in August 1982. The initial version was quite buggy, but the problems were addressed and dBASE-II went on to become one of the killer apps on the PC. By 1983 the company was so successful that they did an IPO.

The original versions of dBASE were all coded directly in assembly language, but as the program grew the decision was made to re-write the next version, a major upgrade, in the C programming language. This proved to be unwise; while dBASE-III, released in June 1984, ran acceptably on newer machines, it was too slow on older PC's and most customers ignored it. Additional releases of the II product continued while they worked on the performance problems, eventually addressing most of them by late 1985.

Around 1986 Ashton-Tate caught "Mac fever" and started developing a full suite of Macintosh applications. They purchased a small company called Ann Arbor Softworks who were busy working on "high-end" business applications, and eventually released their spreadsheet called Full Impact, a word processor called FullWrite Professional, and, of course, a database called dBASE Mac.

FullWrite and FullImpact followed earlier patterns and were released filled with bugs, running slow on common hardware, as well as being over two years late. The products never sold well, with good reason, and Ashton-Tate soon gave up on the whole project, adbandoning FullWrite just as it appeared to be maturing into a powerful system. FullWrite was later resurected in 1994 by an enterprising 3rd party, but by that time Microsoft Word had taken over the entire market.

dBASE Mac was utterly unlike their PC products, including a full GUI that made some complex tasks much easier, as well as offering a full GUI editor for data input. The program was generally lauded as the right way to do a database, but with no ability to share data with their PC versions it had to compete with other Mac-only databases such as 4th Dimension, Helix and FileMaker which were even better. After throwing in the towel they decided to release a direct port of then-current dBASE-III complete with a DOS interface, a doomed project if there ever was one.

Apparently not learning from their mistakes, dBASE-IV was released in October 1988 and was increadibly buggy. Sales started to slump, notably due to the presense of dBASE clones such as FoxBase. The company was soon insolvent, and was purchased by Borland in 1991. The problems with dBASE-IV were eventually fixed, and it was also ported to a number of "high end" platforms such as the Sun SPARC, IBM's AIX and DEC's VMS. dBASE-IV remained their primary product until early 1993.

dBASE 5.0 returned to their roots with a pure-PC version available both on DOS and Windows. By this point, 1993, dBASE's market share was plumetting. Borland eventually decided sales were small enough to stop production, but instead sold the rights to dBASE Inc., a small company dedicated to keeping the product alive. Although versions continued to be released as late as 2000, dBASE is no longer a force in the computer market.


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