Modern Software Experience

2013-08-28

Ancestry.com's What's New list omits biggest new feature?

Family Tree Maker 2012: TreeSync

Family Tree Maker 2012 was released on 2011 Sep 29. The regular release was preceded by a Public Beta to test its major new feature, TreeSync. Ancestry.com documented some TreeSync limitations, but soon, complaints weren't about any limitation, but about just how buggy it was. In fact, several Beta testers had warned Ancestry.com that the TreeSync feature simply wasn't ready for release yet. Ancestry.com released it anyway, and Service Pack after Service Pack had to address TreeSync issues. This got so bad, and Ancestry had so little new features to show, that they decided to not re-brand the product as Family Tree Maker 2013, but keep issuing Service Packs for Family Tree Maker 2012 instead.
An update to Family Tree Maker 2013 observes that it is debatable whether Ancestry.com really kept that promise; there are fixes for TreeSync issues included with Family Tree Maker 2014 that have not been made available to Family Tree Maker 2012 customers. In fact, Ancestry.com has not released any Service Pack for Family Tree Maker 2012 since Service Pack 7 released on 2012 Nov 30.

Family Tree Maker 2012 hardly deserves to be called anything but Family Tree Maker 2008 Service Pack 11.

Family Tree Maker 2014

Family Tree Maker 2014 hardly deserves to be called anything but Family Tree Maker 2008 Service Pack 11. Why would Family Tree Maker 2014 be anything more than Family Tree Maker 2008 Service Pack 19?
As has become usual for New Family Tree Maker, the major reason to upgrade to the re-branded release is the hope that defects have been fixed, and the major reason to hesitate is a history of disappointing upgrades. Ancestry.com's poor track record suggests that FTM 2014 will be about as buggy as FTM 2012, indeed, about as buggy as FTM 2008.

New Family Tree Maker is easily the worst desktop genealogy application by a major vendor, and widely considered to be one of the very worst ever.
Back in 2007, Family Tree Maker 2008 beat both MyHeritage Family Tree Builder 2.0 and Evoo Systems WinFamily 7, to win the GeneAward for Worst Genealogy Product of 2007. Subsequent releases did not win that award, but did repeatedly receive a dishonourable mention, largely for still not fixing the major issues plaguing New Family Tree Maker.
Today, New Family Tree Maker (for Windows) is the one-but lowest rated desktop genealogy application on GenSoftReviews, the only desktop application that users have rated even lower is Family Tree Maker for Mac…

what's new

Family Tree Maker 2014 became available for pre-order a few days ago. According to Ancestry.com's What’s new in Family Tree Maker? page, the two major features of this release are a New Family View and Improved TreeSync:

What’s new in Family Tree Maker?

  • New Family View — see your family tree in a new way. This additional view makes navigating easier, especially when you want to see extended family members.
  • Improved TreeSync — lets you easily synchronize your tree in Family Tree Maker with an online Ancestry.com tree.
    • A more robust TreeSync™ lets you sync even more of your family tree info.
    • Easily share your tree with your family and work on it together. Family and friends can view the online version of your tree without software or a subscription.
    • Collaborate with the largest, most active family history community in the world. Keep your online tree private or make it public so that others researching your family can find you. You may connect with others who have insight on your ancestors, discover rare family photos, or even find relatives you didn’t know you had.
  • More organizational tools — stay organized with new tools that let you sort children automatically by birth order and view people by location, grouping them by country, state, county, and city.
  • New and improved charts and reports — more options and views let you display an individual’s ancestors, spouses, and children together. Also, the Index of Individuals Report has been expanded with options for anniversary, birthday, and contact lists, and more.
  • New tree branch export — a new export option makes it much simpler to export a single branch of your tree.
  • More editing options — save time with the ability to copy and paste facts including related source citations, media items, and notes.

That's one major new feature (New Family View), one bunch of fixes many Family Tree Maker 2012 users are longing for (Improved TreeSync), and a bunch of minor features.
Those minor features should be disregarded lightly. The focus may be on the major new feature and TreeSync improvements, but each of these minor features is an improvement, and quite possibly an improvement some users asked for and are looking forward too.

It is noteworthy that Family Tree Maker has not implemented any of my Integrated Consistency Checking innovations yet, now that RootsMagic already features the suggested user interface of not requiring users to run a report, but always highlighting the consistency status on regular screens, and Millennia has announced that Legacy 8 will feature this too, but I'd much rather see Ancestry.com do it right than in a hurry.
What most Family Tree Maker users really want to know is whether this new releases solves some of the long-standing problems; how excessively memory-hungry, painfully slow, embarrassingly buggy and stunningly unreliable New Family Tree Maker is.

Unsurprisingly, Ancestry.com isn't eager to mention Family Tree Maker's memory appetite, bugginess or unreliability, but they have claimed Family Tree Maker speed improvements in the past. The What’s new in Family Tree Maker? page for Family Tree Maker 2014 does not make any such a claim, so it seems reasonable to assume that Family Tree Maker 2014 does not significantly improve upon Family Tree Maker 2012 in that respect.
However, I would not be surprised is Family Tree Maker 2014 does perform better than Family Tree Maker 2012.

the biggest new feature

Have another look at that What’s new in Family Tree Maker? list. Improvements to TreeSync were expected; if Ancestry.com hadn't listed TreeSync improvements, New Family Tree Maker 2012 users would be rioting already. It's also perfectly normal to include a bunch of minor features, but when we disregard the TreeSync fixes and minor features, we're left with only one major new feature: New Family View. That one major new feature sounds nice, but it doesn't sound like something to get excited about.
The list of new features is a little scanty for what Ancestry.com is billing, quite literally, as a major upgrade. You'd expect a major upgrade to offer more major new features, and preferably at least one feature with a real wow factor, something you'd get excited about, perhaps even so excited that you pre-order the product in blind faith. Ancestry.com's list of new features for Family Tree Maker 2014 doesn't include any wow-features.

The list of new features seems scanty for any major upgrade already, but this isn't your average Family Tree Maker upgrade. This time round, Ancestry did not take one, but two years, to produce what it bills as the next major upgrade. Mull on that for moment; two years instead of one, and New Family View is the only major new feature they've got to show for it? That has to make you wonder what they've been doing those two years.
Well, perhaps I can answer that question.

First of all, as complaints about the low quality of the product keep pouring in, year after year, Ancestry.com has been spending a bit less on new development, and a bit more on quality assurance. So far, I don't think the shift in resources is nearly enough, but it is a partial explanation for the dearth of major new features, and one to be happy about. It is much better to have a few major new features in an application that works well, than many new features in an application that continually crashes.

The major explanation for the apparent dearth of of new features is that Ancestry.com's own What’s new in Family Tree Maker? list doesn't mention their biggest new feature; Family Tree Maker 2014 will be available as a 64-bit application.

Family Tree Maker 2014 will be available as a 64-bit application.

64-bit application

This information leaked from their Beta test group. I have participated in several public and private Family Tree Maker Beta programmes, but not this one.
I was able to verify that Ancestry.com provided a 64-bit Beta, but as I just pointed out, Ancestry.com has not announced this feature. There is still a tiny chance that the final product will be 32-bit only, but I expect Family Tree Maker 2014 to come in both 32-bit and 64-bit editions, with the installer figuring out which one to install on your system.

This will not make Family Tree Maker 2014 the first 64-bit genealogy application for Windows. New Family Tree Maker isn't a true Windows application, it is a Microsoft .NET application. Family Tree Maker 2014 (we generally only add for Windows to distinguish it from FTM for Mac) isn't a native Windows application, it is a Microsoft .NET application.
It does not make Family Tree Maker 2014 the first 64-bit Microsoft .NET application either. By my count Family Tree Maker 2014 will become the third 64-bit Microsoft .NET genealogy application. It was preceded by Chronoplex My Family Tree 2.0 and Chronoplex GEDCOM Validator 1.0.

hard

Although Microsoft .NET makes it relatively easy to create a 64-bit application if you have a 32-bit application already, it is still no walk in the park, especially not if you haven't done it before, and your application doesn't work so well in the first place.
New Family Tree Maker is a fairly large application. Ancestry.com did not write all of New Family Tree Maker themselves. As Family Tree Maker 2009 Technology pointed out, Family Tree Maker makes extensive use of ready-made third-party libraries. That may mean that Ancestry.com has less code to port, but that does not necessarily make it easier. To port the entire application to 64-bit, they need their 64-bit code to interface with 64-bit editions of those components, and you can bet that something changed, requiring some extra work to make things work again. Worse, if there was no 64-bit edition of some component, they needed to find some replacement that is available in both 32-bit and 64-bit editions, (and perhaps in a Mac edition as well), or create a replacement themselves.

A porting operation has side-effects. It is entirely possible to hurry through and make a real mess of things, but the porting process tends to focus attention on problematic, lesser-quality code. So, the more typical result is that the developers find errors they did not know about yet and then fix them in the process of porting, with a more reliable, stabler product as a result.

What's more, even if the quality of the application did not change at all, the 64-bit application is still likely to provide a much better user experience than the 32-bit application. Remember that Family Tree Maker's biggest issues are that is memory-hungry, slow and crash-prone.

memory

Perhaps Ancestry.com did not do anything to fix New Family Tree Maker's excessive memory consumption, but even if they didn't, the 64-bit application is going to be better, because it has more memory to work with. On a regular Windows PC, a regular 32-bit Windows applications gets a 2 GB address space, while a 64-bit application gets 8 TB address space (or 7 TB, but that odd architectural tidbit is an entirely different topic); that is 4096 times as much.
You are unlikely to have even 1 TB installed in your machine. Today, typical amounts of RAM for a 64-bit Windows system are 4 GB, 6 GB and 8 GB.
The bottom line is that in a situation where the 32-bit application already runs out of memory, the 64-bit doesn't even begin to run out of memory yet, but just keeps running and starts taking advantage of the additional RAM in your PC. An interesting side-effect is that we'll finally be able to observe see just how memory-hungry New Family Tree Maker is exactly, and who knows, it just might shame Ancestry.com into doing something about it.

speed

There are many factors that affect application performance, but it isn't unreasonable to expect the 64-bit edition to be faster than the 32-bit edition. That is partly because it can access more memory, because the 64-bit mode of the CPU offers more registers, which allows for more optimised code, partly because it uses 64-bit components, including a 64-bit database system.

reliability

It is likely that the porting process shook out some defects, resulting in a more reliable application already. That's nice, but even if it didn't, the 64-bit edition is probably still less crash-prone than the 32-bit edition.
As a general rule, many application crashes are related to memory issues, such as unhandled out-of-memory conditions, and such conditions are simply less likely to occur in a 64-bit application that has a larger address space to play in. So, it is reasonable to expect the 64-bit edition to crash considerably less often and less easily than the 32-bit edition.

The Bottom Line

I don't think you should have to pay for an upgrade to Family Tree Maker 2014 when all you want is a more reliable TreeSync; I believe Ancestry should keep its promise and offer another Service Pack to Family Tree Maker 2012 customers. In fact, my opinion is that Ancestry should do so even if they had not promised anything.
I do not believe any of the new features Ancestry.com listed to be worth the upgrade price, regardless of the 30% pre-order discount.
It simply is my opinion that the new features Ancestry.com lists do not qualify as a major upgrade.

However, there is that one big new feature they do not list… Only time will tell whether the 64-bit edition actually provides the possible improvements, or has so many teething problems that it is actually worse.
I will not be surprised if Switch to the 64-bit edition replaces the customer-insulting Run the Compact File tool as the catch-all mantra of Ancestry.com's Family Tree Maker support, and it actually solves a number of issues that users are experiencing.
When that happens, when switching from the 32-bit to the 64-bit edition makes problems go away, you know that spending on the upgrade from Family Tree Maker 2012 to Family Tree Maker 2014 is worth it, not for any of the features Ancestry.com listed, not because it is intrinsically better than Family Tree Maker 2012, but because it includes a 64-bit edition.

links

2013-09-03: Family Tree Maker 2014 flyer

Ancestry.com has published a one-page Family Tree Maker 2014 | New Features flyer. It contains the following text:

Faster Than Ever

You asked us to improve the speed and performance. Family Tree Maker 2014 is faster than ever with 64-bit compatibility.

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