Modern Software Experience

2009-09-16

 

brief history

Embla Family Treasures is a desktop genealogy application for Windows, developed by Embla AS in Norway.

Family Treasures was originally developed back in 1992 by Larry Ledden, and sold by his company Family Technologies (FamTech), which offered a crippled demo through its own site.

Family Treasures was also marketed under license, by AbleSoft as Family for Windows and by Digital Systems Research as My Family Tree.
Huhnware’s identically named My Family Tree is a different application.

Initially, new releases followed each other quickly, but the release pace slowed down. Version 4 of Family Treasures was released early in 2001. 

Version 4 introduced Genealogy Extension Modules (GEMs), which is Embla’s name for Family Treasure plug-ins. The demo for version 4 lacked export and report functionality.
It was included on Family History Monthly’s first covermount CD, distributed with their 2003 October issue.

Embla

In 2003, FamTech Family Treasures became Embla Family Treasures, when the Norwegian company Embla AS bough the rights to Family Treasures.

Embla Family Treasures version 5 was released on 2003 Dec 15, and the basic version was now free. Embla Family Treasures version 5 is crippleware in much the same way as Millennia’s Legacy Family Tree; the basic edition is free and usable, you only pay to unlock features not included in the free edition.

This version was introduced to the American market in mid 2004, but less than a year later, the company went bankrupt.

Since then, Embla’s American web site shows just one page.

Embla.us Home Page

On that page is the following message:

The Norwegian company Embla AS (Embla Ltd) that develops "Embla Family Treasures" is bankrupt. New owners have bought the rights to the company and software. A new version of the program is under development. The program Embla Family Treasures will not be marketed or sold in USA until the new company has found a distributor. Distributors with a network in the USA can contact the new company.

We are sorry, but the previous USA contact, Family Technologies, is not able to give free support to old customers.

I believe that message to be crystal clear; under the new owners, Embla Family Treasures is still known as Embla Family Treasures, and it continues to be developed and marketed from Norway, they just do not have an American distributor. There is even a mail link to the Norwegian web site, so it seems hard to misunderstand the message.

Yet recently, someone drew my attention to some blog post that contained multiple factual errors. Among those errors was the claim that the Embla Family Treasures program folded years ago and that it is no longer available.

Never mind that programs do not fold, but companies do. The claim that this program is no longer available is nonsense anyway. There currently is no American distributor or support, but Embla Family Treasures is still under active development and the latest version is just a 36 MB download away, and needs about 71 MB on disk.

download and installation

The first hurdle to using Embla Family Treasures is downloading and installing it. The Embla website is in Norwegian. The installation program is in Norwegian. However, Embla Family Treasures itself is still multilingual.

Although I do not understand Norwegian, I experienced no problems downloading and installing the application. The download and installation process are not unusual in any way; if you have downloaded and installed a few applications before, downloading and installing Embla Family Treasures is not real a challenge. It is just a matter of recognising familiar dialogs in a foreign language.

multiple versions

The current version of Embla Family Tree defaults to installing into the same directory as previous versions. If you want to install more than one version of the application, you may want to use separate directories to avoid file version conflicts between the different versions.

When I installed version 8 after version 5, it detected the previous installation and offered to install in the same directory. I choose to install in separate directories.

The download is the demo version, which allows you to explore all features as long as your database is smaller than 50 individuals. The demo allows import of larger files, but as soon as you pass 50, you lose the ability to edit. The demo cannot be upgraded to the full version, you need to buy the full version and install it over the demo.

first time use

Norwegian import Wizard

You can uncheck the checkbox on the last installation dialog, but the installation program defaults to starting Embla Family Treasures for the first time, and as soon as it starts, Family Treasures presents an import Wizard.

That really is a design mistake, Embla should let you pick your language first. In fact, Embla should have let you pick your language during installation. Sorry, I meant to say that they should have an English web site to support the English version.
Kidding aside, I later discovered that the application can show the dialogs in English. That it forces you to go through the Norwegian dialogs before its lets you change the language to English is rather user-unfriendly.

The import Wizard dialogs are in Norwegian, but it is pretty clear that the wizard offers to import your data from Embla Family Treasures 3 and later, WinFamily 6, and GEDCOM.

switching language

Here is how to change the language to English. After dismissing the import Wizard dialog, you get to the main application, where you choose Fil | Velg språk from the menu. That brings up a small dialog box where you can choose from several languages; English, Amglish, Swedish, Danish, Norsk (Nynorsk) and Norsk (Bokmål).

It is great to see that Embla does not try pass Amglish of as English, but actually supports both English and Amglish. I am not so thrilled that choosing a language requires an application restart. The Embla programmers knew better; version 5 switched user interface language without requiring a restart.

Once the switch to English was done, I found the application a lot easier to use. After the language switch, Family Treasures failed to start up just once, but after that, everything was fine.
When I later removed and reinstalled Embla Family Treasures, the import Wizard was in English.

registration

The application starts by asking your name and email without making it clear why it does that. Initially, the dialogs are in Norwegian, but even after installing the second time, with English dialogs, it was not clear that it was merely asking registration information.

I did not find this clear from the dialog, but what Family Treasures is asking here is used as the submitter information in GEDCOM files.

first use wizard

Once you have done that, Embla’s first use wizard prompts you offer a choice between creating a new tree and importing from either GEDCOM, earlier versions of Family Treasures or WinFamily 6.

There is no I am fine, get out of my way, and just show me the app option, hitting the escape key does not cancel the wizard either, and if you choose to start a new tree, the app once again prompts you to enter your own details. This annoying behaviour is rather disappointing for an application that is at version 8 already.

Luckily, as soon as you have entered yourself, the wizard quits, and you are greeting with a screen that shows you and buttons that invite you to enter your father, mother, brothers, sisters and spouse.

Embla also immediately started showing a Family Project Status messagebox with the text Rebuilding family project links, and ten minutes later that box still wasn’t gone yet.

Embla Family Treasures: Rebuilding family project links

The screenshot of Embla Family Treasures above shows that dialog box. I have seen that dialog box more than once, and in my experience, its real meaning seems to be that the applications is stuck in an endless loop.

Notice that the main window defaults to a graphical display. Also notice the highly inaccurate watercolour drawing that this graphical display defaulted to. I do not wear a moustache.

There is nothing about genealogy applications that makes it reasonable to brush aside the platform’s user interface guidelines and conventions.

look & feel

Embla Family Treasures is a Windows application, but does not really look like and feels like a Windows application.

The application’s own Active X controls are so flat that even Windows 3.0 seems three-dimensional in comparison.

The properties dialog for xButton.ocx shows that they have not put much energy into developing these controls; the copyright messages is still (C) Family Technologies 2002. The low quality of their Windows user-interface controls and the wide variety of cheap third-party controls makes me wonder why they stuck with their home-grown controls at all.
Embla Family Treasures would look better and feel more like a Windows app if Embla simply dumped the archaic ActiveX controls in favour of standard windows controls.

main-window-as-dialog

One user interface misfeature reminds me of Brother’s Keeper, which misbehaves in just the same; things that should be dialog boxes are not. Instead of showing a dialog box, the application makes the main window double as a dialog box; whatever it should show as a dialog box, is shown in the main window instead. This is not only decidedly un-Windows and rather awkward, it also destroys the visual anchor that a main window should provide by continuing to show the same thing in the background while you fill out a dialog box.

I do not like unnecessary pop-ups, so I will readily agree that avoiding pop-ups is a good thing - but that is not what Embla’s programmers have done. They have just turned every modal dialog into a modal main-window-as-dialog, and that is not an improvement over real dialog boxes in any way. What is worse, they have replaced the common dialog boxes with their own main-window-as-dialog boxes.

Replacing the common user interface dialogs is not a good a thing. Users are familiar with the common dialogs, and they are quite rich in functionality. Both that familiarity and their rich functionality are missing from Family Treasures.

I find it hard to understand why vendors release applications with interfaces that are sure to annoy to experienced Windows user. There is nothing about genealogy applications that makes it reasonable to brush aside the platform’s user interface guidelines and conventions.

multilingual

Embla Family Treasures support multiple languages, but does not provide full support for these languages. You can have an English or Amglish user interface, but the start-up tips remain in Norwegian.
There are help files, but all of these are in Norwegian too. There are no English help files.

adding to the tree

When I exited and restarted the application, the problem with the rebuilding family project links dialog box I experienced before did not reassert itself. I decided to try and find out whether the messagebox that wouldn’t disappear was a fluke or an easy to duplicate defect by adding a parent.

The Family Project Status messagebox did not reappear, so this seemed another thing that only happens once, so that seems another defect that only crops up the first time you use the feature.

These are the kind of defects that make me wonder whether the developers ever tested a clean install of this application, and make me suspect that they merely tested on system on which they had already installed the previous version.

I was somewhat strengthened in that impression when I de-installed and then reinstalled Embla Family Tree; the second time I installed it, the application dialog boxes defaulted to English; Although I happened to like that, fact remains that it shows that the deinstaller did not do a full clean-up, but left configuration information behind.

default surname

When I added a father, the Embla Family Treasures did not provide a default for the family name. I am so used to genealogy application doing that, that I was a bit surprised by the absence of this feature.

This may seem an oversight but it was probably a deliberate decision; Norway used the patronymic system into the 20th century of the Gregorian Calendar. Only for recent generations would defaulting the surname make sense.

patronym

Once you know this, you fully expect Family Treasures to support patronymics, yet the edit screen for individuals does not show a separate patronym field. Even after checking the Include patronymic checkbox in the Preferences dialog and restarting the application, the individual screen still does not show a patronym field.

Even more confusing is that the edit screen for individuals always shows a field for a middle name, even if the Include middle name option is unchecked. These options do not seem to affect the application at all.

The lack of support for patronyms strikes me as odd. A Norwegian genealogy application should provide support for patronyms. Then again, so should Dutch genealogy applications, and most do not do so either.

spreadsheet

Family Treasures offers an list overview of individuals like many genealogy applications do. It additionally offers a list overview of families. It shows both overview using a spreadsheet control, but it does not support either import or export to a spreadsheet format. It just uses a spreadsheet control to show the overviews.

A weird option that deserves special mention as it seems to appeal to some users, is the spreadsheet option; Family Treasures can show your family tree as a spreadsheet and export it too.

default directory

A serious flaw of Family Treasures is that it defaults to storing your database in a subdirectory of the application directory, instead of using your Documents directory. That is not just against the guidelines, it practically invites accidental deletion of your data when you delete the program directory; data you perhaps never made a backup off because it is not in your Documents directory…

GEDCOM

The Embla Family Treasures 8 GEDCOM article contains a detailed look at Family Treasures’s GEDCOM support. Some things are just weird; Embla Family Treasure does not support UTF-8 yet claims to support UTF-16, but overall the GEDCOM support is of an embarrassingly low quality. The GEDCOM import speed is best expressed as seconds per individual instead of individuals per second and import of the large GEDCOM failed with an erroneous error message. The GEDCOM export contains so many basic errors that I dare say it has never been tested. A rather dubious distinction that Family Treasures shares with Ancestry.com’s Family Tree Maker is that even its GEDCOM header invalid.

The Embla Family Treasures 8 GEDCOM article also relates how the File | Import/Export menu only worked the second time I tried. Multiple experiences like this within hours of installing the application sure do create the impression that the application is riddled with features that do not work the first time round. That, in turn, reinforces the impression that the application was never really tested.

data consistency checks

One of the features I like to see in genealogy applications is data consistency checks, checks that make sure that the genealogy really is a genealogy.

The Embla Family Treasures 8 GEDCOM article notes that its GEDCOM import ends with a database consistency check because earlier import phases are known to create invalid databases. That database audit phase is about consistency of the database structures, not the project data.
Embla Family Treasures does feature a data consistency check as well, you just got to look for it a bit. It is the Database Content audit option on File | Family Project Utilities main-window-as-dialog.

I find the last option on the Audit Content main-window-as-dialog, Delete Unknown (and unconnected) members a bit scary. I think it is better for users to do any deleting themselves, but Audit Content does offer some basic consistency checks that perform reasonably fast; checking the database created from the 1MB GEDCOM took about seven seconds on my Vista machine.

A fairly obvious complaint about the consistency check is that Family Treasures presents the results in a rather small edit box. It saves an audit.log file but that file does not contain actual audit results, just status messages which audit phase is running. To get at a reasonable log file, you need to choose the Print button.

The dated PDF output format is enough to make you wonder whether Embla has done any maintenance on this feature during this millennium.

print

Whenever you choose print from anywhere in the application, you are presented with a print preview in the main window, and several options to its right. One choice is available there is to actually print the document, but other choices are to export to HTML, PDF or JPG

The HTML validator is not impressed by the quality of the generated HTML and the font the PDF uses for body text is a high and narrow sans-serif font that makes the page painful to look at.

A fundamental issue is that the PDF is encoded in Windows ANSI instead of Unicode, which seriously limits the ability to export your data to PDF.

The generated PDF is in PDF 1.2 format (supported by Adobe Acrobat 3), while PDF 1.3 (supported by Adobe Acrobat 4 and later) was released a decade ago already. The dated PDF output format is enough to make you wonder whether Embla has done any maintenance on this feature during this millennium. I definitely think they should do some maintenance on this feature soon; now that PDF 1.7 is an ISO standard, Embla should should move forward to support PDF 1.7.

GEMs

Genealogy Extension Modules

Embla originally presented its Genealogy Extension Modules (GEMs) as if it is something special. It is merely Embla’s marketing name for Family Treasure plug-ins. Instead of packaging all features into a single executable file, some features are packaged into a separate DLL. That is not special at all; packaging selected features into separate DLLs is a standard Windows programming technique.

nickeling-and-diming business model

What was special, albeit not in a very good way, is that Embla’s hoped to sell these features separately at remarkably high prices per feature, for a total application of roughly one hundred American dollars. Few prospective customers were enthusiastic about their nickeling-and-diming business model, and Embla went bankrupt.

Today, I could not find a trace of that business model on their website. There is just one Embla Family Treasures 8, and it ships with all the DLLs that Embla created for it.

The application architecture has not changed, The Family Treasures features that were packaged in DLLs are still packaged in DLLs, and Embla still refers to those DLLs as GEMs.

GEM standard?

The name that Embla choose to use for its plug-in DLLs may sound like it is some industry standard, but it is not. It is a proprietary standard of Embla Norsk Familiehistorie AS, and there seems to be no documentation for third parties interested in developing extensions for Family Treasures.

reports and charts

The first problem with trying to create a report is that there is no report item on the main menu. Once you discover that Report List is one of the choices in Member List, the second problem is that the actual list of reports to choose from is not in English, but in Norwegian. The interface is awkward in the same way the rest of the user interface, but the reports themselves are in English.

Embla Family Treasures can print reports, or export it to HTML, RTF, Word, JPG or PDF. The export to RTF seemed fine, but the export to Word was remarkably slow; the progress indicator initially increased with about one individual per second, but more than an hour later, Family Treasures still was not finished writing the document containing less than 5.000 individuals. I did not time it exactly, but it took several hours. Word document creation seems about as slow as the GEDCOM import. That is surprising, because the RTF creation is pretty fast.

multimedia

Embla Family Trees seems to support both copying objects into your project and linking to them. I tried to both, but whatever I did to add a picture, the list of multimedia objects continued to show zero entries.

technology

Embla’s own version numbers show that Embla Family Treasures 8 ships with the same dated ActiveX controls as Family Treasures 5.

ActiveX

Embla Family Treasures ships with several ActiveX controls. Family Treasures version 8 ships with the same ActiveX controls as Family Treasures version 5.

Active ControlEmbla FT 5Embla FT 8
XButton.ocx1.1.0.311.1.0.31
xContainer.ocx1.0.0.361.0.0.36
xListbox.ocx1.2.0.61.2.0.18
xText.ocx1.0.0.201.0.0.20
xwidget.ocx1.0.0.501.0.0.52

Three major releases later, several controls still have the exact same version number, and the others do not have major changes, do not have minor changes, do not even have revisions, but only a new build number.
Embla’s own version numbers show that Embla Family Treasures 8 ships with the same dated ActiveX controls as Family Treasures 5.

Embla DLLs

The Embla DLL contains contain major features such as GEDCOM support and reporting. These all carry the 8.0.3.0 version number, so the version number is the least thing that has changed, but I am not sure much else was changed.
After all, the HTML, PDF, RTF and Word output do not offer support for recent versions of these formats.

INI files

Embla stores several settings as well as the strings for the various languages it supports in INI files. When you sort the directory by file extension, you notice how many INI files there are (and most or all of the files with the DAT extension are INI files too). That is not how multi-language support is supposed to be done. Moreover, since the introduction of the Registry in Windows 3.1 in 1992, applications are supposed to use the Registry instead of INI files.

VsamEx

Family Treasures use VsamEx, a database engine by Software Source. Family Treasures ships with vtl5032.dll. The version number is 50.32.3.2. The oldest version number currently on the Software Source web site is 50.32.5.5, and that version was released on 2004 Jul 7. Version 50.32.3.2 is an even older version, with even more known defects. That Embla has not upgraded the database engine in years is highly unprofessional.

overall quality

Embla Family Treasures makes me nervous. That it crashed more than once is not good, but it is something that more applications that have never been tested with large files do.

What really makes me nervous is that it makes me update its version 7 database to version 8, but that the next time you start it, it makes you do that again. Or, the next time you start it, it makes you wait while it recreates some index. That happened more than once, even after sessions during which I only explored its reporting capabilities and did not edit a single record.

Testing does not seem a priority at Embla. More than once, I experienced that a feature only works the second time you try it. The embarrassing low quality of the GEDCOM export practically proves that it has never been tested. Additionally, several functions are so embarrassingly slow that no professional programmer would want that code to ship.

conclusion

I cannot get enthusiastic about Embla Family Tree at all.

The program is multi-lingual, but there is no English help file and some parts are Norwegian-only anyway and the user interface is needlessly un-Windows.

Embla claims that Family Treasures supports Unicode, but it only supports UTF-16 and not the more common UTF-8, and its UTF-16 support is seriously defective. Its GEDCOM import is embarrassingly slow, its fails to import a large file, and its GEDCOM exports starts with an invalid GEDCOM header.

The output formats are dated. The database engine has not been updated in years, and it seems impossible to try and use Family Treasures without continually encountering evidence that Embla never bothered to test their application. Things only work the second time you try them, output is so defective that it can only be termed gibberish, and some basic features execute ridiculously slow, it keeps redoing its indexes and it crashed multiple times.

The quality of Embla Family Treasures is embarrassing. Yet the price Embla charges for Family Treasures, 890 Norwegian krones, is more than hundred Euros. That is a ridiculously high price for such a low quality product.

product details

propertyvalue
productFamily Treasures
version8.0.3.0
companyEmbla
websiteEmbla Norsk Familiehistorie AS
priceNOK 890 (€ 105)
requirementWindows 98 SE or later
note 
VerdictSlow, un-Windows, dated & defective
RatingEmbarrassing

updates

2011-04-23: Embla US

The Embla UK, Embla Norway and Emblas US web sites are all gone. The broken links have been removed.

links

Embla

also mentioned

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