Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why are there no new genealogical database programs?

You may or may not have noticed that the current crop of genealogical database programs are all into higher numbers in their versions. For example, Family Tree Maker from is up to Family Tree Maker 2014, sort of like the new model cars coming out a calendar year early. Most of the other products that are on version numbers are also crawling up there, such as:

  • RootsMagic 6
  • Ancestral Quest 14
  • Reunion 10
  • MacFamilyTree 7
  • Heredis 2014
When I am talking about genealogical database programs, I mean those programs that you purchase for use on your personal computer. Of course, there are a multitude of choices for parking your family tree information online. But most serious genealogists still believe that having your own program on your own computer is preferable to relying on online sources.

In analyzing the genealogical database program market worldwide there seems to be a core of programs that have wide enough circulation and sales to appear as main participants in the genealogical community. There are, of course, dozens of other programs, mainly developed by individual programmers, or developed in the open source world of genealogy. Whenever I write about software programs, I always get comments about some of these other programs and how wonderful they are. One of these that is often mentioned as the program Gramps. But even that program is in version 4.0.2. 

I guess my question is why there appears to be so little innovation in new programs for genealogy? it seems to me that genealogy is reached the same plateau as word processing programs, spreadsheet programs, presentation programs, and all of the other categories of software that seem to have a few entrenched software products with no realistic challengers. In some of these areas it is obvious that any challenger to the leading products would have to have a massive amount of financial backing to go up against software providers such as Microsoft and Apple. But with the exception of offerings from and, most of the genealogical database programs come from smaller software development companies.

In the area of Apple compatible genealogy software, the whole genre is vastly underrepresented. None of the Apple products for genealogy are actively promoted at conferences or in the genealogical publications. Even in the Windows realm, very few of the existing genealogy programs are actively promoted. Even at a big genealogy conference such as RootsTech, there are only a small handful of genealogy program vendors.

One argument for the reason that there are so few new programs is that the existing programs are more than adequate and there is simply no room in the market for new programs. However, what I think is more likely the case is that the innovations in the genealogy software industry are currently almost entirely directed towards online programs.

There are certainly some areas of the genealogy programs that need innovation. For example, in my experience none of the merge functions in the programs that I have used work more than marginally well. That is just one example of a long list of functions that are in most cases adequate but could be improved. Data entry and almost all of the programs is painfully slow and as I have recently pointed out over and again, moving data from one program to another relies on antiquated procedures.

My observations are not intended to be a criticism of the existing programs, some of which are extraordinarily useful and have some extremely beneficial features. But it is interesting to contemplate what might happen if someone approached the issue of recording family history from a holistic standpoint with economic backing to actually move into the forefront of the community.

It was not my goal in writing this commentary to include an exhaustive list of every genealogy software program available, so please do not feel offended if I did not mention your favorite program.


  1. Thank you, James. Your article is spot on! And don't get me started on GEDCOM. If the online news world can develop and adopt a flexible standard (RSS) for distributing news articles, why can't the genealogy world develop a basic XML template for family data?

    Didn't you post something about FamilySearch making the family tree API available to developers at no cost? Is that an attempt to offer software developers a standard they can afford to adopt?

    1. My understanding is that the APIs would be involved in any access to either party's database. Thanks for the comment.

  2. "more likely ... innovations in the genealogy software industry are currently almost entirely directed towards online programs"

    Except I'm not sure how much use many of those innovations are. Innovations can take many aspects and some of those aspects are purely internal to the software with no direct / immediate benefit to the user.

    E.g. FamilySearch's FamilyTree is a major innovation technically - but how much of an innovation is it in *genealogical* terms? I think the phrase "One step forward; two steps back" applies. Take its inability to record Notes in *all* the places that GEDCOM based programs can (against the individual; against an individual's events / attributes; shared between lots of individuals and events ...) And what there is for Notes, only came in in October. How can one write micro-history for people without notes against specific events?

    And so far as I know, none of the major software platforms allow multi-person events. Why is this important? Take an emigration. Why should I enter the same event with the same descriptive Note against all members of my family on that ship? Or even copy the same stuff? And then how about the further linking of the emigration to the micro-history of the ship?

    These are the sort of things I would like to see - no doubt lots of others wouldn't care about my ideas and want their own. But I just feel that there is little *genealogical* innovation among lots of *technical* innovation. Why? I suspect that the answer has a lot to do with current innovation being technology driven - frankly, I think there is a serious gap between the software guys and the genealogists that just isn't being crossed by ideas or detailed requirements. And any more detail on that could be libellous!

    1. Thanks for several blog post suggestions. I guess it is time to comment on microhistory. Thanks for all the other comments also that I don't end up writing about.

  3. By coincidence, James, I was just putting together a "defining" blog-post about me and my work ( and felt it was slightly relevant to your theme here.

    1. I will have to take some time reading your blog post. Thanks for the ideas.

  4. The current PC/MAC based genealogical programs have only converted the prior handwritten methods and forms to a computerized method of doing the same thing. This was a great step forward as it made the preservation, storage and searching the data much easier. What would make these programs much more valuable would be would be utilizing the data in new ways and views, much like does to reveal previous unseen family lines in need of research and to resolve issues within the database.
    In my interactions with these software developers I have found them to have a very myopic view of what their programs can and should do. Outside the box thinking is needed to open up the great potential we have in our individual genealogy databases. As an example, I have been searching for a way to view my database in a different way, to not only see potential research opportunities but also to resolve some issues. One of my thoughts on this was to view my file in 3D. I was aware at the time that MacFamily Tree existed and was intrigued by it but I have all my programs in Windows PC. I have also reviewed Progeny’s version, though it is limited and I’m very impressed with how the individuals are presented. So while at a genealogy conference here in Mesa a year or so ago I asked a developer whose software I used if he had thought to develop a 3D view of the database. I could not believe his response: “Why would I do that?”
    I have been researching similar programs and found that law enforcement uses social networking visualization software to view relationships within and among gangs and criminal enterprises. I see know reason why this couldn’t be applied to genealogy since these are social networks too.

    1. My point exactly. I think there is a a huge opportunity here to move onto the next level of data analysis for genealogy.

  5. I am with you, David (a year later). I, too want to better visualize the networks people lived within, as well as the paths they traveled. Some programs have rudimentary mapping programs, but so far, I haven't been impressed. I think software developers are probably very logical and linear, which is necessary to genealogy research and probably software development, but I also want non-linear ways of viewing and studying my data.

    For instance, it would be interesting to be able to visualize networks of people like the WikiWeb app for ipad does, so you could better understand groups and see or discover connections between people and groups in locales that you might not have put together before. I wrote the WikiWeb app folks about developing or partnering with a company that develops genealogy software, but they are a small firm; it was outside their bandwidth.

    I also want more visual components and better ways to not just build a library of facts about people but tell their stories - without necessarily having to hand write each one. Treelines ( has an interesting way of visually telling stories with timelines connected. When I tried it, however, you couldn't import large databases into it, so I had to recreate the facts and data in order to make a story, which was cumbersome. It could be used selectively, however, with the stories then linked to websites of genealogy programs.

    We geneologists love collecting data, but telling the stories we find and making genealogy interesting and accessible for our families and others can be difficult. Doing it digitally (which is the easiest way to share these days) at this point requires cobbling together multiple programs and platforms; there has to be a better way.

    Let's hope someone hears our cry!
    Kelly Keegan