Modern Software Experience

2007-07-10

Open Beta

Family Tree Maker 2008, the successor the Family Tree Maker 16, has gone into Open Beta today (2007-07-10). It was announced a few days ago, but there was nothing to download. The download links works now, but be warned that the ftm_beta.exe file it is roughly 165 MB and it appears like they are using an underpowered server. Even with a fast connection, download is likely to take half an hour. This beta version is set to expire on 2007 Aug 24. Be sure to read the caveats on the download site.

requirements

Installation should be smooth on any Windows XP or Vista system with 400 MB of free disk space. It does not detect an existing Family Tree Maker 16 installation, but defaults to installing in its own folder, called Family Tree Maker Beta. Once you okay the folder, the install program takes about a minute configuring your new software installation, whatever that really means. It is a minute during which nothing seems to happen, but once the mysterious "configuring" is done, it it starts installing files. I experienced no install problems.

phoning home

Once you start FTM 2008 Beta, it immediately tries to access the Internet. And I do mean immediately; my Firewall popped up a dialog box even before I saw as much as a splash screen.

acknowledgements

The about box confirms that FTM 2008 is also known as FTM 17. The About box also shows that FTM 2008 relies on GenBridge from Wholly Genes to import files, on Microsoft Virtual Earth to provide place mapping and on Loresoft spell checking and dictionaries. These acknowledgements are new to FTM 2008. The FTM 16 about box does not show these.

GenBridge

The use of GenBridge to import data directly from other programs is interesting. GenBridge is the name that Wholly Genes gives to the direct file import (look ma, no intermediate GEDCOM) they use in their own products, The Master Genealogist (TMG) and Family Tree SuperTools (FTST).

I do understand that Ancestry.com decided to look around for an alternative to their own GEDCOM import, which is not exactly of industry-leading quality. Unless they finally bothered to improve it, one of the nicest thing I can say about FTM’s GEDCOM import is that compares somewhat favourably to their GEDCOM export.

I played enough with FTM to understand that Ancestry.com, the Generations Network, or whatever their current name is, is looking for an alternatives. I also happen to have some experience with GenBridge. I bought a copy of Family Tree SuperTools when it first appeared and I have played with every demo version of TMG since. In my experience - and I am putting this nicely - GenBridge import is slow and unreliable, and unlikely to be successful for anything but toy-sized GEDCOM files.

It is reasonable to assume that most major genealogy vendors have evaluated GenBridge. Because of my own experiments, I never found it surprising that not even one major player decided to incorporate it into their program. That FTM, which Ancestry.com bills as the no.1 genealogy program, is now using it, is worthy of notice.

Has Wholly Genes improved their GenBridge toolkit so much since TMG6 or did the FTM development team make a serious mistake? Time to give FTM 2008’s import a whirl and find out.

FTM/GenBridge import

I took out my PAF 5.5 test database with some 100.000 individuals, and asked FTM 2008 to import it. After more than a minute of analyzing the file, it put up a dialog box stating An unknown error has occurred. You will need to restart Family Tree Maker and try again..
Huh? Why is the error unknown? And why the restart?

without restart

I first tried again without a restart… and got The process cannot access the file ‘I:\Test\HundredThousand.paf’ because it being used by another process. So I have to restart because either FTM or GenBridge apparently does not bother to clean up after itself, but keeps file handles open, at least after what they label as an unknown error.

Still, if it tried to open the file as read-only, and then open it again, there should be no problem. Only a process that tried to write to the file should be denied access now.

Perhaps FTM/GenBridge was demanding exclusive file access although it was merely reading the file? I tried to open the file in a hex editor to test that. I experienced no problems.

Apparently, when you ask FTM/GenBridge to merely read a file, it actually opens the file for both reading and writing… that’s a rather basic blunder and somewhat surprising for a product that’s been around for years already.

underwhelmed

I decided to exit FTM and try again, and got some modal message box on exiting. When I tried again as requested, FTM failed again, and with exactly the same message. It does not seem to me that it had bothered to remember its failure and did anything different now, so just why did they ask me to restart and retry - to once again ask me to restart and retry? And just how helpful do they expect unknown error to be? My first encounter with the FTM/GenBridge combination left me distinctly underwhelmed.

FTM GEDCOM import

All this had taken quite some time. I still needed to import a file, any file, to start playing with the program features. I decided to give the GEDCOM import a whirl. I tried importing a small 1 MB GEDCOM. With this file, the analyzing phase took barely a second, after which it took about two minutes to import the file.

import speed

Once the import was done, it popped up the statistics for me: importing 4862 individuals in 1700 families took 2 min and 15 seconds, thus averaging an import speed of 106 records per seconds.

Hm, I wonder about their arithmetic. Let’s see, 2 min and 15 seconds is 135 seconds. Importing 4862 individuals in 145 seconds is 36 individuals per second. Even when I take the individual and the family records together (4862+1700=6562), I arrive at slightly more than 48 ½ records per seconds. How did they ever arrive at that 106 records per second number, and what does it mean?

FTM’s arithmagic

Hoping to find some clue to FTM’s arithmagic, I decided to view the import log file. The last four lines are statistics that list the number of individuals, families, records and errors. It says the GEDCOM file I imported has 14386 records. Hm, 14386 / 135 rounded down to the nearest whole integer is 106 records per seconds. Okay, so that is how we get the number.

disappointing slow

To round out the statistics, the file contains 1055895 bytes in 66268 lines. Thus, the import speed can be expressed as 33 individuals per second, 12 families per second, 490 lines per second and 7822 bytes per second. That is a disappointingly slow import. When I exported the file again, I was not exactly pleasantly surprised by its export speed either.

GEDCOM export

not even the header right

I had a brief look at the GEDCOM files that FTW 2008 generates. Ancestry.com labels these as VERS 5.5, but they are not.

FTM does not even get the GEDCOM header right. The HEAD.SOUR.VERS should contain the FTW version number, with a maximum length of 15 characters. Instead, it contains the string Family Tree Maker (17.0.0.371), that’s a full name instead of a version number, and it’s double the maximum length. That’s a direct violation of the standard. As a result, applications that do respect the GEDCOM specification, may not be able to read it.

no ANSEL or UTF-8 support

When I decided to export the file, I was offered a choice between export to FTW and to GEDCOM 5.5. When I choose to export to GEDCOM 5.5, I was not offered any subsequent choices.

Upon examination, the character encoding for the exported file turns out to be "ANSI". Apparently, FTM 2008 does not support ANSEL or UTF-8 encoding will output all your files in Windows ANSI. The help file seems to confirm that. I searched for ANSEL and I searched for UTF-8, and received nothing but a message box stating 0 topics found.

FTM refuses to read FTW GEDCOM

When I presented FTM 2008 Beta with a GEDCOM file created by an older version of FTM, it refused to read these because they are not GEDCOM 5.5.
Applications should read files created by previous versions. Not doing so in unacceptable.

export to FTW is backup

When you export to FTW, FTM 2008 Beta creates some binary file format with the extension *.ftmb, which probably means FTM Binary. It took only two seconds to figure out that this export is what most genealogy applications offer as a quick backup: a ZIP file containing the database. The "export" is really a mislabelled quick backup, not an export.

layout

FTM 2008 introduces a new layout, which Ancestry calls workspaces. The seven workspaces are Plan, People, Places, Media, Sources, Publish and Web Search.

import errors in workspace

Now that I managed to import a file, I could have a look at it. The import log file noted a few import errors. I was pleasantly surprised to notice that the so-called Plan workspace contains a Current Tree tab that list the same issues as the log file does.

I have long been of the opinion that programs that import a file and show the errors nowhere but the import log do their users a disservice. After all, many users don’t look at it, and those that do, may find it hard to use. The practical upshot is generally that import errors are effectively ignored, that data is lost and that users do not even know that data is lost, let alone which data is lost.

Showing all import errors in the program is the superior way to handle this. Now, I do not know just which errors FTM handles this way. It is well known that previous versions of FTW are less flexible than most programs when it comes to dealing with dates, and often complain about dates that other programs would happily accept. And what do you know, all ten errors are date parsing failed for….

Still, having that list in the program is a good thing. Alas, my enthusiasm for this feature dimmed considerably when I tried to use it. It did not seem to be linked to the individual or event in question, and does not even show the date format it refused. Double-clicking accomplishes nothing, so it seems just a to-do list, until you figure out that you need to click the Go To button tucked away in the upper right corner of the tool bar for the task pane. And once you are there, you still don’t get to see what this date is that FTM failed to parse. It seems that the date has not been imported, because, it failed to parse.

window sizing

On my 1280 x 1024 desktop, FTM defaulted to a 1024 x 768 window. That may seem big to some, but with Windows XP as the minimum OS, users are unlikely to run at lower resolutions.

You can resize the window as you see fit, but it is not a smooth experience. FTM is slow to update the windows when you try. There is a few seconds of flicker while FTM’s screen updates lag noticeable behind your resize action.

I briefly had the impression that it was impossible to resize the panes within the FTM window. Turns out that you can drag and drop, but that the width of the area you can click is to do so is somewhat smaller than it appears to be. Once you figure out where to click, resizing works fine.

workspaces

I had a quick look at all the workspaces. The Plan workspace is where you either import a new tree or work through your to-do list. The People workspace is where you find the familiar person and family overviews. The Places workspace is just a master place list. Media is where you can view multimedia items for the file. Sources is the master list for sources. The Publish workspace allows you to choose between several kinds of reports.

The last workspace, titled Web Search feature is not really a web search, but an Ancestry.com search. If you do not pay their monthly subscription fees, the usability of this feature is limited.

These sevens workspaces are actually seven tabbed windows. This is not immediately obvious, because the tabs do not look like tabs, they look like buttons on a button bar. When you click on one of these tabs that look like a button, the program takes you to the window for that tab.

The reason for making the tabs look like buttons may be that some of these windows have subtabs, and that someone thought you would find that confusing. Having two different looks for the same mechanism seems more confusing to me. Moreover, considering that there are just a few workspaces with more than one subtab, doing without the silly button bar and just showing all these subtabs would be a cleaner design. It would would allow quicker, direct switching between the actual tabs and save the space occupied by the bar with the tabs, eh, buttons for the workspaces.

more interface, less features

FTM 2008’s user interface is unnecessarily wieldy. My initial impression is that the workspaces feature is nothing but a BUI, a Busy User Interface designed to look big, and thus mask the lack of actual features.

I’ve hardly scratched the surface, yet it feels like I’ve seen everything already. Initial comments of long-time FTW users confirm the impression that FTM 2008 has less features than FTM 16. That makes it a downgrade instead of an upgrade.

The tabs and subtabs look clean and perhaps even visually appealing, but I soon noticed that the menus change between the workspaces in a way that does not really make sense to me. It certainly did not feel right. It feels like a modal menu system, and that feels wrong because modal design is essentially against the Windows User Interface Guidelines.

summary

FTM 2008 Beta fails to import files as advertised and does not even give a reasonable error messages. When import does work, it is slow. The busy user interface tries to hide a lack of features, and just makes you click more than necessary.

The application refuses to read GEDCOM files created by earlier versions. The ostensible GEDCOM files it creates are not GEDCOM-compliant at all, the GEDCOM header already violates the standard. It outputs GEDCOM files in Windows ANSI only. It does not support ANSEL or UTF-8 at all.

The overall impression this application made on me is that it still needs a lot of work, that it is way too far from a finished product to compare to anything else, even FTW 16.

conclusion

These are impressions of a beta version, not a a release version. The beta is a downgrade of unacceptable quality. I have no conclusion about the release product, but offer one thought. The low quality of this beta must have made other genealogy software vendors very happy. If the released product isn’t considerably better, many formerly loyal FTW users will be looking for alternatives. I will not be surprised if FTM2008 inspires several vendors to offer special upgrade programmes to attract disillusioned FTM users.

updates

2007-07-26 update: RC1

The beta I downloaded expired on 2007 July 25. I was directed to download a new version. The filename made clear that this is now Release Candidate 1. I did some quick experiments, and did not notice improvements on any issue. I did encounter another issue; the menu item Open in a new window does not open a file in a window, but actually starts another copy of FTM. The menu item is inaccurate.

2008-03-19 update: version overview

I’ve created an overview of New FTM versions: Family Tree Maker versions.

download link note

The FTM 2008 Beta could be downloaded from beta.familytreemaker.com. That URL no longer works, The www.familytreemaker.com URL briefly offered the beta as a trial version, but does not offer a trial anymore.

product details

propertyvalue
productFamily Tree Maker 2008
versionOpen Beta
companyAncestry.com
websiteFamily Tree Maker 2008
pricefree download
requirementWindows XP or Vista, with .NET
noteFinal release will require CD-ROM drive to install.
VerdictDowngrade.
RatingUnacceptable.