The most commonly asked question at the recent Northern California Family History Expo in Sacramento was whether or not genealogists really needed a local decktop genealogy database program. The question arises in the context of all of the online family tree programs when many are apparently using Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com or FamilySearch.org's Family Tree as their primary database. Many of these people were not using any other program.
The traditional answer to that question has always been a resounding yes, you certainly do need a desktop (or your own) program. But as time passes, the arguments in favor of a local vs. an online program start to get fuzzy and less compelling. In the case of FamilySearch Family Tree, where the program is free and now has stories, photos, sources and will certainly add online documents, responding to this question has become more of a discussion of needs rather than a simple yes/no response.
I am still finding a huge reservoir of Personal Ancestral File (PAF) users. A significant percentage of the people who spoke to me at the Expo, explained that they were still using PAF. I suggest that for people who are in that category, it would be extremely helpful for preservation purposes, if they would put all of their data online. Then, when they could no longer access their PAF data for whatever reason, they would still have a complete backup of their files online. In fact, I would prefer that these people move to using an online database entirely if they do not want to move to any other program. The discontinuance of support of PAF by FamilySearch is largely symbolic. In a class of over 75 people, when I asked if any of them had ever called FamilySearch for support with their PAF programs or ever, not one hand went up. But symbolic or not, it is causing more of the die-hard PAF users to examine whether or not they want to move to another program and hence the question about whether they cannot just use FamilySearch Family Tree or some other online program.
It is my perception that younger users of computers and especially mobile devices will have no clear perception of the difference between an online program and one that resides in their own computer. In fact, the distinction may disappear entirely. Companies such as Microsoft and Adobe are now providing their software through online subscriptions, not through the sale of individual products. I expect that boxed software will slow (or maybe even quickly) disappear from the market. Instead of buying a box, you will simply download the software and any documentation you may get with the program. This transition is inevitable as the CD/DVD technology begins to disappear. Many computers are sold today without an optical (CD/DVD) drive. The transition to distributing movies and other files formerly sold on CDs or DVDs will also disappear as more and more people use downloadable files for movies and audio recordings.
So, if the software programs all move to distributed network connected products, the concept of having a local on-your-computer program will disappear and so why worry about the distinction. The real issue is not having the program on your computer, but having a local, master copy of your data on your own computer or under your control. Quite frankly, I would not care if the program I was using was "online" or on my local computer as long as I had my own personal copy of the data.
The secondary question that arises is compatibility. As long as the large online databases are insular and the files do not share content, there is an added issue of preserving the information is one or another of these online services decided to go out of business. This hasn't happened in a major way yet, but it is inevitable. So until there is an adequate way of moving the data from one database to another, without the loss of information this presently entails, local software and storage is the only solution.
So I look at three levels. The first level is the new or casual user who may or may not become serious about pursuing their genealogical heritage. In this case, whether or not they want to use an online tree or an local program should be entirely equally available and optional. The second level includes people whose primary database is PAF. I suggest rather than encouraging them to adopt another program, that they put their files online so at least the data they have is preserved. The last group are those who already have a local database and for the time being, they should simply keep doing business as usual but watch for the trends when local programs begin to disappear.