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

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What I like about popular genealogy database programs

In a popular post I wrote recently, I listed some of the genealogical database programs I use. In response, I got a short comment asking what features I like about each of the programs in my list. Hmm. That started me thinking about why I try to keep up with several programs and don't just settle down with one. For the past few years, I have been teaching classes up to six days a week at the Mesa FamilySearch Library. That is about to change with my move to Provo, Utah. I may not have the same level of opportunities to teach people directly that I have enjoyed for years. Originally, one of my main motivations for "keeping up" with all the programs was to have the ability to help patrons at the Library when I was asked a question about a particular program. That opportunity may now vanish. So what is my motivation for keeping current on all the programs now?

In the past, I have resisted the urge to do software reviews of the various programs in the sense of criticizing their various functions. This was done, in part, out a desire to maintain good relationships with all of the developers. I am more than willing to evaluate programs directly and in confidence but I feel that public criticism of the various genealogy programs is counter-productive to the development of the genealogical community as a whole. Now, online database programs, such as, and others are open season. Failings in their programs affect more than voluntary purchasers. They should have a much higher standard of support and should be more cognizant of the failings of their programs. Why the distinction?

I have spent years of my life debugging programs. It is not hard for me to find a programming issue in the first few minutes of my use of any program. That is what I do. For me, this is like saying I can take a lawsuit to court. It is something that is so routine that I don't have to think much about the process. I simply think it is not fair to attack a program in public. So why do I attack the big online database programs? Supposedly, they have the resources and the programming support to make their programs work. They have millions of people everyday using their programs and relying on the fact that they work. It is mainly an issue of scale. Many of the individual database programs are the product of one or more programmers working alone and without the vast resources of the big genealogy companies. Why make enemies of the programmers? Now, I do realize that some of the programs on the list are the products of large companies, but I am not going to pick apart those programs and leave the rest alone. It is easier for me not to try to make those types of distinctions on the desktop software level. 

Enough on that issue. Here is the list I published.
  • OS X and Windows
  • Windows
  • Ancestral Quest Windows
  • Celebrating Family History Windows
  • Family Tree Maker OS X and Windows
  • Family Tree Builder Windows
  • Reunion OS X only
  • Legacy Family Tree Windows
I might mention that I have looked at and worked with about a dozen additional programs over the years. The very fact that a program has made this list says something about my attitude towards the program. If you were to blindly pick any one of these programs for your own use, you would have a very good, usable and competently programmed genealogical tool. I have no trouble recommending each one of them. I know people who are very satisfied with each of the different programs. It is not up to me to tell you which one of these programs you would like the best. The features that I value in each of these programs will not be the same ones you value. My reasons for excluding other very useful programs from my own list may be far different than your own perceptions and needs. 

Most of us, when we go out to buy a new product, such as a car or a computer, spend some considerable time evaluating what is available and comparing features. In the end, our decisions sometimes come down to trivial things such as the color of a car or the look of a computer case or the price of the product. The same is true of software. We use what we are familiar with. I constantly hear complaints every time there is a program update that the users have to learn everything all over again. That fact alone keeps people using a program such as Personal Ancestral File long after it is officially dead. That fact also keeps most users from jumping from one program to another. Once you know how to use any particular program, inertia sets in and you are stuck using that program. Why do you think Windows 8.1 now looks a lot like Windows 98? Why do you think that the average car today looks almost exactly like every other car today?

If I were going to sit here in Mesa (soon to be Provo) and tell you what to buy in the way of a genealogy program and choose one of these programs as my "favorite" I would be doing you and the companies involved in furthering the work of genealogy a disservice. But I will tell the world what I like about genealogy programs in general and I will keep picking away at the major online database companies both in public and in private. They are grown ups, they can take the heat. 

I will tell you two factors, independent of the utility of the programs listed above, that will make or break any of these programs in the future. The first is that the program exchanges data with a large online genealogical database program. The second is whether or not the developers of the program participate in the genealogical community and come to the conferences. If any of the programs' developers ignore either of those two factors, their programs will not prosper and will ultimately be marginalized. 


  1. Is there a particular reason why the programs you listed are in the manner they are?

    1. I assume you are asking why they are in the order I listed them. No, not any particular reason. I just went down the list.

    2. Is there any particular reason why you have omitted Family Historian from your list yet you have listed some very obscure programs instead? Family Historian is a very well respected program with a wide user base, particularly in the UK and the US. It has a very active community. Simon Order, the developer was at Who Do You Think You Are? Live, the largest family history show in the world, and also at Rootstech.

      You can find further information about the program here:

      The user group website can be found here:

      I have no connection with the program other than as a satisfied user.

    3. There are still several programs that I have not had any direct contact with. I have not previously had anyone ask me about Family Historian, although I have looked at a description of the program previously. I will take a look at it. Thanks.

    4. Thanks James. I meant to say in my previous message that Family Historian has a wide user base in the UK and Australia. It doesn't seem to be so well known in the US as yet.

    5. Maybe it should be. I'll check it out again.

  2. I'm hearing about all sorts of software problems for those of us who have Win 8.1. My old Family Tree Maker won't work on it, and I need to get it replaced. I have no idea what would be compatible with Win 8.1 and really would like some help in choosing. Would you please help those of us who are on Win 8.1? Thanks.

    1. I will look into it an see what is the problems are. I have not heard anything more than the usual problems accompanying any operating system upgrade.