Dabble Postmortem

Tomorrow is the last day for Dabble DB, an online database services on which I ran my company for the past few years.

The migration to other platforms has been painful, to say the least.

Several years after Dabble first launched, no other provider comes close to matching Dabble’s price, features, or its amazingly wonderful user interface.

I’m sorry it was bought up by Twitter. It should have been bought by Apple and incorporated into the iPhone, iPad, and any other product they’ve got.

We really, really, REALLY love the user interface. We used it for our editorial workflow, for bookkeeping, for HR, to collect survey data, to gather statistics, and for any other company function that involved gathering and managing data.

After Dabble announced its impending doom, we tried out every other platform out there, and nothing even comes close. Which is suprising. After all, how hard is it to rip off — I mean, be inspired by! — someone else’s user interface?

Dabble did an amazing job at making relational databases simple and intuitive.  But enough about that. Here’s what we have learned.

Go big

If you’re going to be using a Web-based platform, go with a really really really big one. That way, there’s less chance of it shutting down. And, if it does shut down, it will affect a huge number of customers — so there will be migration paths available to other systems.

In our case, we have moved our customer relationship management databases over to Salesforce.com. It’s a big, big, BIG platform. Lots of features. Better email functionality than Dabble.

Unfortunately, the user interface leaves a lot to be desired. But, with all their revenues, maybe they’ll be able to afford to do some housekeeping and make it more usable.

In any case, the documentation and tutorials are great — no complaints on that front. Of course, they wouldn’t need the tutorials if they just fixed their interface problems… oh, well.

Go WordPress

We are big, big, BIG fans of WordPress. We’ve been using it for our company websites for a while now.

The latest release supports custom data types.

This is a big deal.

You see, at its heart, WordPress is a relational database. Typically, it only has a few tables — the table with the blog posts, another table for user names, etc…

You’re not really supposed to access the database directly — you can really mess up your blog.

But with the new custom fields functionality you can, in effect, set up new tables in the system.

For example, say you use your WordPress site for a few static pages — About Us, Contact Us, Pricing — and blog posts filled with your latest company news. And, say, your company does events. You can set up a custom post type called “Events” and in there you’d have the event title, the body of the post — the event description — and as many custom fields as you want, such as date, location, speaker, price, and so on.

With a little bit of template fiddling, you can have those events now come up in a section on your website, and be searchable and otherwise integrated with the rest of the site.

We take this a step further — by making some pages and options visible only to users who are logged in (that is, company employees) — we can also add in internal pages for workflow monitoring.

Zoho Creator

For everything else, we’ve gone with Zoho Creator. In fact, they’re still in the process of migrating our databases from Dabble. One is pretty much done, and we’re integrating it into our workflow now.

Zoho’s pricing is similar to that of Dabble, though the user interface leaves much to be desired. In addition, Zoho Creator presupposes a higher degree of technical knowledge on the part of the person setting up the database. And it has a scripting language. Dabble didn’t have a scripting language because it didn’t need one — all its features were readily accessible through its menus and options windows.

However, Zoho gives you a lot less storage than Dabble did for the same amount of money.

Open source it

Ideally, I would want to have a front end to mySQL that runs inside WordPress that’s as easy to use as Dabble.

I can see a business model here.

A company can write a set of plugins to do basic database administration — create new tables, add fields, add entries, create links, create and display views, and allow updates.

Then they can sell additional plugins or templates that sit on top of this basic functionality.

I would rather pay money for a plugin and template — and have as much storage as my hosting provider offers (i.e. — unlimited!) — than pay a monthly fee for access to a hosted product that could disappear any day.

And if it was open source that means that I would still have it even the folks who created it folded up shop and went off to do something else.

If anyone is interested in working on this with me, email me at [email protected]

I’m told that Drupal already has some of this functionality. But I can’t even read the Drupal installation guide, much less actually install it. Whereas WordPress is a small business person’s dream.