Online Collaborative Databases Offer Alternative to Excel

For those of us with hobbies — from amateur sommeliers to voracious readers — our own databases of knowledge more often reside in our heads rather than on a hard drive.

At work, though, people have grown accustomed to using Excel as a poor man’s database. Luckily for them, a new, free database tool called “blist” launched in beta earlier this year. Blist appeals to nontechnical consumers who don’t see enough value in urging the spreadsheet tool to pretend to be a database program.

The basic blist offering eases users into its friendly interface with a lingo all its own, as well as simple drag-and-drop functionality. Supporting several data types, blist enables the use of numbers, names, monetary amount and more, in easy-to-create columns. Blist users also can import data directly from Excel. Its application programming interface (API) means users can link applications to their blist databases.

Company founder and CEO Kevin Merritt sees the business model growing to become the small-business solution of choice for arranging tasks, projects and inventories or for creating easily managed processes for distribution and publication.

“Excel is the most ubiquitous database in use, but it is entombed on people’s PCs. A market that obviously needs a database online with specific query ability is small businesses,” he said. “We will get to small businesses through consumers.”

Merritt envisions home users adopting blist for particular issues they face within work teams, rather than across the enterprise. “Most of the problems small businesses deal with feel like departmental problems, not enterprise problems, and departments don’t have DBAs [database administrators] and programmers,” Merritt said.

While blist currently is free, in early 2009, Merritt and his team plan to launch a premium service for small businesses.

TrackVia, a competitor to blist that charges for its relational database, serves small and midsize businesses as clients. Typically the database is used by 10 to 100 people within organizations as large as 1,000 employees.

Firms use TrackVia to track job applicants, keep tabs on inventories, chart travel opportunities, record use of fleet vehicles, document legal permit applications and even book customer data and sales leads that may have been put into Salesforce.com.

Matt McAdams, TrackVia’s CTO, said TrackVia and other cloud solutions are “more private and sensitive than a server in the company’s basement or Bob’s laptop. It’s like the question: Are you better off keeping your money in the bank or under your mattress?”

With the prevalent use of Google and Yahoo mail, “the cloud has people’s trust,” he said.

Most customers start with existing data they upload from Excel. And the dozen or so data types — text, currency, percentages, formulas, numerals, images shown as thumbnails, dropdowns, checklists and documents — can be manipulated and related to one another according to departmental needs, or even shared interests across work groups.

Merritt sees blist and others in its genre as pioneers.

“One of the trends that gave us confidence to start blist was the 180-degree turnaround from how people use software,” he said. “End users are choosing applications based on usability and bringing it in the side door — not through IT.”

As long as there’s not a security risk and new solutions can get the job done, IT is giving employees the go-ahead.

Kelly Shermach is a freelance writer based in Chicago, who frequently writes about technology and data security. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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