One of the fun things about writing this newsletter is that I get to exchange ideas with a lot of people about the technology issues of researching one's family tree. I get to meet people in person, talk on the telephone, and exchange e-mail messages with genealogists all over the world. I find that I learn a lot as a result.
A newsletter reader wrote recently to describe his tale of woe. He is unhappy with his current genealogy software and asked about any "reliable" genealogy software that will be supported for years into the future. He has already switched genealogy programs once, with some difficulty, and is reluctant to switch again. However, he is also unhappy with his present choice.
For years, he used Family Tree Maker (FTM) to maintain the records of the 2,000 people in his family history file. However, he became aware of the program's shortcomings as he read reviews of other genealogy programs in this newsletter and elsewhere. A few years ago, he switched to Family Tree Legends (FTL), primarily because it permitted direct conversion of the FTM file to FTL (including "books" and photos) with distribution of a "shareable CD" to family members, a nice bonus that saved him the necessity of printing "Books." However, the company that produced Family Tree Legends has since dropped the product. Several software products produced by the company were sold, and the new owners seem to have little interest in Family Tree Legends, instead preferring to focus on some other products produced by the same company. No updates to Family Tree Legends have been released in years, and it is doubtful if any updates will ever be produced in the future. Similar stories can be told about other genealogy programs.
Conversion to another program is possible, but only by applying a lot of manual effort. Family Tree Legends does permit exporting a file in GEDCOM format, but the books and photos and multimedia scrapbooks do not export. Hundreds of hours of loving creation of these items will be lost.
My correspondent wrote, “I feel I should get my records into a database for which the software will be maintained. Do you have a recommendation and especially any ideas about how to convert the books, notes, facts and photos?”
I am sure that many others have similar questions, so I thought I would share my comments here.
This newsletter reader asked two separate questions:
- How do I convert data from one genealogy program to another, including notes, facts, and photos?
- What genealogy programs will still be in business and be supported years from today?
The first question is the easier of the two, so I will tackle that first.
All of today’s genealogy programs support GEDCOM data exchange. GEDCOM is a more-or-less standard file format designed especially for exchanging genealogy data between different software packages. In theory, GEDCOM should do the job. However, anyone who has used GEDCOM extensively can tell you about the many pitfalls involved.
GEDCOM was invented as a file format in the 1980s and has had a few updates since then. However, there have been no major updates at all in more than ten years. An XML version of GEDCOM was proposed more than five years ago, but nothing has happened with the proposal since then. The XML proposal has never been implemented in any of today’s genealogy programs. Meanwhile, genealogy software has become much more advanced in recent years, and the existing GEDCOM standard no longer can accurately transfer all the data between dissimilar programs.
Specifically, GEDCOM was invented long before the common use of web sites, digital photographs, videos, sound files, slideshows, and other multimedia offerings that are commonplace today. A later update of GEDCOM added a method of specifying where such multimedia files exist on the originating system, but there is no method of converting a complete slideshow or other advanced multimedia creation from one software package to another.
Even the text-based part of GEDCOM has significant limitations. For instance, the originating program may have multiple kinds of text notes and citations while the receiving program may have more or fewer or different kinds of text notes and citations. Some modern genealogy programs will record a person’s physical characteristics, medical information, DNA information, a tombstone’s latitude and longitude, or other such information commonly found today. Other genealogy programs may have fewer or different or even more such fields for data storage.
The GEDCOM standard is not able to convert all data properly from all genealogy programs such that the same data can be imported into all other genealogy programs. For more information about GEDCOM, see my earlier “GEDCOM Explained” article at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2008/08/gedcom-explaine.html.
That same article mentions GenBridge, a system that is much better than GEDCOM for transferring genealogy data, but one that has not been widely adopted by the various genealogy programs of today. Several major desktop genealogy programs use GenBridge today, the most notable being The Master Genealogist (TMG), a Windows program. It is worth noting here that some other genealogy programs can import data directly from Personal Ancestral File, bypassing the entire conversion problem. However, Personal Ancestral File has a rather simple database structure and does not internally support multimedia, DNA, physical characteristics, geographic coordinates, or other types of advanced data. Such items can be added by the use of third-party software, but any multimedia items added via these third-party tools typically do not get exported by the use of GEDCOM.
In short, when you move data from one genealogy program to another (assuming you are not using GenBridge or direct import), you can expect to spend hours doing “cleanup” work after moving the data. The notes may not transfer in the manner that you want. Most of today’s genealogy programs include some form of exception log, which lists data that the program could not convert; this is a good place to start your cleanup. You probably will need to copy or verify all the multimedia files, and any multimedia slideshows generated in your old genealogy program probably will have to be recreated.
The second question is a bit more complex: “What genealogy programs will still be in business and be supported years from today?” I am not sure that my crystal ball is any better than anyone else’s, but I can offer some comments, based on the history I have witnessed in the 22+ years that I have been writing online articles about genealogy.
For years, one program claimed to be the most popular genealogy program in the world: Family Tree Maker. However, since its introduction as an MS-DOS program in the 1980s, this program has been passed from one owner to the next. While one or two owners claimed to be making a profit with the program, they always seemed anxious to sell the program or to sell the entire company to new owners. Indeed, creating a chart of the many generations of the program’s owners will require a genealogy program! There were numerous buy-outs, mergers, acquisitions, and near bankruptcies to be charted.
Family Tree Maker is now produced and sold by Ancestry.com, the same company that operates the popular web site of the same name. The program is still actively marketed although the new owners do not seem to spend as much money on advertising as did some of the previous owners. While still a viable alternative today, I would not make any predictions one way or the other about the future of Family Tree Maker. I hope that it remains as an available program for a long, long time.
Probably the second-most popular genealogy program is Personal Ancestral File, a Windows program produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often referred to as “the Mormons.” This aging program is available as a free download from the FamilySearch.org web site and is still popular. However, it has not had any significant updates in years, and the producers announced several years ago that they would never add any new functionality to the program. A Macintosh version was available at one time but was dropped years ago. Instead, FamilySearch is focusing its development efforts on a new online product that is referred to as “New FamilySearch.”
If you are still using a ten-year-old version of Personal Ancestral File and now decide to upgrade to the latest version, you will not notice many changes. A few reports have been added, and it now works in multiple languages. Not much else has changed. A few years ago, a very nice interface to Palm handhelds was added; however, a compatible version of Palm is no longer available for sale in any stores.
The structure of the main Personal Ancestral File program hasn’t changed much in the past two decades. Unless you purchase extra-cost add-ons, the program still does not create multimedia scrapbooks, search the web, create fancy printed charts with pictures, create web sites, create timelines, record DNA information (other than as simple text notes), record latitudes and longitudes (other than as simple text notes), or verify locations. Almost all other genealogy programs of today do all of that and more.
All of the remaining genealogy programs are produced by small companies, and predicting their future is also risky. Indeed, many genealogy programs have fallen by the wayside. Family Tree Legends is no longer available. Not too many years ago, a list of leading genealogy programs would have included both Ultimate Family Tree and Generations Grande Suite. Those two were popular at one time but have since disappeared.
One of my favorite genealogy programs folded several years ago. Embla Family Treasures was produced by Embla AS, a Norwegian company. It was a very powerful and easy-to-use Windows program. Embla Family Treasures was almost unheard of in the United States, but it sold rather well in Norway, and quite a few copies were sold in the rest of Europe. The company has since declared bankruptcy, and the program is no longer available.
The remaining genealogy software products of today are all produced by small, privately-owned corporations that do not publish their financial reports. I have no insight into their financial health, but I certainly hope that they are all doing well. Indeed, several of them seem to be selling a lot of software: Wholly Genes Software (The Master Genealogist), RootsMagic, Millennia Corporation (Legacy Family Tree), Calico Pie Software Ltd. (Family Historian), Leister Productions (Reunion for Macintosh), Incline Software (AncestralQuest), Synium Software GmbH (MacFamilyTree) and several others all seem to be selling a lot of software. The future appears to be rosy for most of them; but, again, I wouldn’t bet on any single one. I suspect most will survive and do well, but there may be a couple of surprises along the way.
In fact, I see two bigger issues than simple profitability:
In today’s economic climate, many software companies are looking for mergers or acquisitions. I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of the producers of better genealogy programs are purchased by larger corporations. We have already seen this happen multiple times with Family Tree Maker. We also saw it happen with Family Tree Legends although the new owners have not updated the program since the acquisition. I suspect the same will happen to other programs as well.
The acquiring companies might not be known as genealogy companies. Instead, they may be large, well-financed companies that are looking to move into the field. (Who whispered “Microsoft?”) However, we can probably assume that the acquiring companies will continue to support and upgrade the software. Indeed, each new owner of Family Tree Maker has always made it easy for users of earlier versions to upgrade to the latest at any time. I suspect that most acquiring companies will handle their future acquisitions in a similar manner.
Next, we are just beginning to see a major shift in technology. Keeping an isolated genealogy database in your desktop computer’s hard drive is quickly becoming old-fashioned. These “islands of information” are so 1990s. In fact, the basic concept of today’s genealogy programs probably will be obsolete within a decade or so.
Fifteen years ago, “always on” residential broadband connections were unheard of. Ten years ago, they were unusual. Today, the majority of American Internet users are connected via broadband Internet connections, and in several other countries the percentage is even higher. Online access prices have been dropping for twenty years and probably will continue that trend. Future broadband connections will probably be cheaper than today’s dial-up.
Within a few years, a dial-up modem probably will only be found in museums and antique stores.
Let’s look at wireless connectivity for laptop and handheld computers. Five years ago, high-speed, wide-area wireless connections were unheard of. Today they are everywhere. In my travels, I see lots of people in airports, restaurants, and elsewhere using high-speed wireless connections. Even cell phones now surf the web and will read and send email messages at high speeds on wide-area “3G networks.” We now have several simple genealogy programs available for handheld devices, such as the iPhone and Android systems. These are connected online, all the time, wherever we we are. High-speed wireless connections have become common and speeds have increased quickly. 3G networks are available most everywhere and 4G has started to appear in some markets. I suspect 3G will fade away within 2 or 3 years, to be replaced by 4G everywhere and a 5G network won't be far behind.
Online applications have also grown in popularity. A decade ago, only business applications used centralized databases. Most online consumer applications of that time simply retrieved information and displayed it on a screen. Today we have all sorts of online backup systems, online word processors, online tax software, and more. Even several large corporations have thrown out word processing and spreadsheet programs, such as Microsoft Word or Excel. Instead, they are switching their thousands of employees to online solutions, such as Google Docs or Zoho Docs. In short, online applications are becoming accepted as commonplace and desirable.
The pervasive availability of interconnected networks anywhere and everywhere allows for business models that were unthinkable only a few short years ago. Why should you have an isolated “island” of data on your local hard drive and I also keep a similar “island” on my own hard drive? It really makes no sense when you realize that you and I are perhaps related, sharing some number of common ancestors. It makes no difference if you and I are next-door neighbors or if we live thousands of miles apart. Add in a few hundred of our computer-owning distant and not-so-distant cousins, and you begin to see how inefficient today’s genealogy programs really are. My database may have errors, and yours may have different errors. Mine may be missing information, perhaps information that you already know and have recorded in your database that remains hidden from me. Perhaps our distant cousin in Poughkeepsie has already broken through that “brick wall” that has frustrated you and me for years. We will never know as long as we keep our genealogy information in separate, isolated databases, not connected together in any way.
You and I and all of our cousins should be pooling our data in a manner that makes sense to all of us. We should be able to see each other’s public work and to decide for ourselves if we wish to accept or reject the information available. We should be able to do this quickly and easily and without re-typing. Taking information from one computer and then RE-TYPING IT INTO ANOTHER COMPUTER is so 1980s. We should know better than to do that today.
Shared online databases solve many problems. Obviously, it is easy to share information and provide access to those with whom we wish to share. Of course, a well-designed database also allows us to place private information online and to keep it private. We should be able to share details when we wish and to not share details that we wish to keep private. I might want to share individual pieces of data online with my siblings and first cousins, but not with more distant relatives. A properly-designed online database should be able to handle both situations easily.
Online databases also can solve today’s problems with maintaining backups. The online databases are kept in modern data centers, where data can be backed up daily or even more often, if necessary. Off-site backups or even live mirror-image databases can be maintained in distant locations to protect against local disasters such as hurricanes or tornadoes. Each individual genealogist should be able to rest assured that his or her data is properly protected.
Finally, online databases are very easy to access now that most of us are using computers that are always connected to the Internet via high-speed connections, even when being used at a local library, courthouse, archive, or when riding the commuter train. Why should five million genealogists be maintaining five million different databases? Wouldn’t we all be better off maintaining one database? Or perhaps two or three or a dozen databases?
We are in the infancy of shared online databases. A few shared databases have been available for some time, but each has significant drawbacks.
OneGreatFamily.com, The Next Generation, WebTrees, PhpGedView, WeRelate.org, and FamilyTreeExplorer.com all offer online databases, and all allow some means of sharing that data amongst multiple genealogists in easy-to-use web-based genealogy applications. These are available TODAY.
NewFamilySearch is a huge effort underway by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It looks great, but a few thousand hours of programming effort remain before it is “ready for prime time.”
So, how do today’s genealogy programs fit into all this? Will all of today’s programs become as obsolete as buggy whips? I doubt it.
I am fortunate enough to be personally acquainted with most of today’s genealogy software producers. I must say that they are a clever and business-savvy group. As technology changes, you will see their genealogy programs change to match industry and customer demands. I am confident that most of today’s programs will eventually sprout online interfaces to whatever databases become popular in the future. In fact, three have already done so, and more are reportedly in the works.
The online databases of the future will not even need a visible user interface. Why not have the FamilySearch or Ancestry.com or OneGreatFamily.com or some other company simply create the database, using a future specification that allows different genealogy programs to communicate with the database? The user interface then might be created by any, or all, of today's genealogy software producers. In fact, there might be one central database or there might be several, all operated by competing organizations, each trying to offer better features than those of its competitors. Competition is generally a good thing as it drives each competing organization to offer better and more useful features than those offered by its competitors.
Each online database should be capable of storing source citations, images of original records, and even pictures of the individual, if available. Instead of recording the page number of a census record, why not show an image of that record? Seeing an image of the original record as written in the enumerator's handwriting is much more valuable than a second-hand transcription with possible errors, created by some unknown genealogist. We have that technology available today.
Conflicting data could be handled in any of several different methods. I always like the eBay method of rating sellers. eBay will display each seller's feedback rating as reported by former customers. A typical eBay rating might be “99.8% Positive Feedback.”
I suspect that a similar method could be created to rate online genealogy data as to its believability. Why not ask the people who use the information to rate how accurate they found the citations listed, and then collect those statistics automatically and report them in a similar manner to eBay's ratings?
Yes, some people will upload erroneous data. As the database grows and more and more people contribute, the false information should become easier and easier to identify. If twenty people contribute similar information, complete with links to images of the original record involved, who will accept the information provided by the 21st contributor that has no sources cited at all? If different contributors identify multiple, conflicting sources, the person reading the information should be able to view all included source record images and then decide for herself or himself which to accept, if any.
Future genealogists could purchase The Master Genealogist version 10.0 or RootsMagic version 6.0 or AncestralQuest version 18.0 or Reunion version 12.0 to access the central database(s). (NOTE: All of those version numbers are significantly higher numbers than what is available today.) The user interface, the printed reports, and the multimedia offerings probably will vary from one program to another. Different programmers will always compete to see who can offer the best user experience and the best reports. The different programs should share only one thing: data. All of those programs could access one or more centralized genealogy databases.
I suspect the same programs also will want to keep local databases as well, perhaps based on data originally obtained from centralized databases and then updated by the local users. An option could exist to contribute the local changes to central databases or perhaps not to contribute, based on the user's preferences.
In fact, three genealogy programs do that today: RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, and AncestralQuest already have capabilities to exchange data with New FamilySearch. The same programs also keep data on the local computer's hard drive; the exchange of data with the central database is optional.
I imagine that The Master Genealogist, MacFamilyTree, Family Historian, GRAMPS, Family Tree Maker, Reunion, and other genealogy programs will all add similar interfaces to online genealogy databases as soon as their users start demanding such access. I believe that less than ten years from now, most of us will be using genealogy programs in our Windows, Macintosh, Linux, iPhone, Android, and other systems to enter and store all information online. (That's assuming that Windows, Macintosh, and the other operating systems are still around in ten years. I wouldn't bet on that, either.)
Having constant online access to genealogy data solves a couple of problems. First, there is little need for personal backups. Any well-run data center will make constant backups, including offline storage. The end user always accesses data that resides in that data center; so, there is no need for each person to make local backup copies, although he or she can still do as an option. However, savvy people will always make their own personal backups, whether that is required or not.
Next, information will be available constantly to genealogists on desktop computers, laptop systems, handheld computers, cell phones, and whatever new information device is invented in the future. The information will be available everywhere, all the time. A wired connection to the Internet will be optional as wireless access becomes even more commonplace. The future genealogist will no longer have to worry about converting data from one computer application to another via GEDCOM or other translation software.
NOTE: Of course, there will be issues with the API (application programming interface) that connects your personal computing device to the centralized, online databases. GEDCOM issues will go away, only to possibly be replaced by similar or perhaps even greater issues elsewhere. With millions of genealogists storing data into online databases, these issues will need to be cleared up quickly.
Of course, access to data should always be controlled by the person who finds the information and enters it into a computer. The question of data control is simple: if you don't want others to have access to your information and to possibly republish it elsewhere, don't upload that information to a public database!
While the data will be stored in a remote online database, genealogy consumers will be able to choose from a variety of programs that retrieve the data and display it in different methods. You will be able to add data to the central database by using any of a dozen or more genealogy programs. Your data will be visible to others in “real time” as you enter your data. In fact, the online database should also serve as a data verification device to see whether an entry about a particular ancestor already exists within the database and, if so, whether the stored data agrees with your new information. If not, the person entering the data should be able to choose which source he or she believes.
As to “What genealogy programs will still be in business…”, my guess is that most of them will still be around and will be healthy. A couple may disappear, but the better programs probably will survive. They will all have future capabilities that are not available today.
Which one should my correspondent select as his next genealogy program? There is no easy answer. I would say that he should select the one that looks the best to him. As in most other things in life, there is always risk. In this case, the risk is that a particular genealogy program will disappear. Indeed, that could happen to any of today’s programs. As risky as that may be, it would not stop me from purchasing whatever program I think is best for me. With the aging GEDCOM standard and even with the newer GenBridge, I may have to reconstruct some data, but the basic names, dates, places, and source citations can always be preserved and expanded in the future.
In short, full speed ahead! Future genealogy software definitely will be different from what is available today. I think that is a good thing. Collaborating with other genealogists, sharing data and source citations, will result in more accurate information for all, housed in databases that are easier to find and use.
This is a great time to be a genealogist!