Modern Software Experience


Popular Ancient Freeware

It is clear that FamilySearch abandoned PAF, and thus its users, but many users have not abandoned PAF.

ten years old

The latest update to Personal Ancestral File (PAF) was released on 2002 June 23. That is more than ten years ago. It is clear that FamilySearch abandoned PAF, and thus its users, but many users have not abandoned PAF yet. PAF continues to be one of the most popular genealogy applications for Windows. That's remarkable.

During the past ten years, competing products have been improved. New products have been introduced. New features have been added to existing ones.
There are literally hundreds of genealogy applications, old and new, to choose from. Yet many people keep using PAF. In fact, many genealogist still recommend PAF to beginners.


PAF wasn't the first genealogy application, but it was introduced early. When it was introduced back in 1984, it was one of just a handful of applications to chose from.


Early versions of PAF were multi-platform. PAF 2.0 was available for CP/M, MS-DOS and Apple ProDOS. PAF 2.1 dropped support for CP/M, but added support for MacOS. PAF 3.0 is for MS-DOS only, and PAF 4.0 and later are for Windows only, but the multi-platform available in the early days did help to make PAF popular; it seemed to make PAF a safe choice, whatever you were using, and whatever you were going to buy next.

no 16-bit Windows

There is no version of PAF for 16-bit Windows. When PAF for Windows was introduced in 1999, it immediately demanded 32-bit Windows. Users of 16-bit Windows had to run PAF 3.0 in DOS Box, or choose a competing product.
That may seem like a point against PAF, but it actually was a point against competitors that did provide genealogy software for Windows 3.0 and 3.1; Windows 3.x is infamously unstable, and that negatively affected the reputation of software available for it.


Back in 1984, PAF 1.0 could be ordered for US$ 35. That is probably more than US$ 80 in today's money, but it was still relatively cheap. The other genealogy software on the market was selling for hundreds of dollars. End-users tend to spend their money on hardware, and rarely budget for software. PAF was the cheapest genealogy software, so that is what many early computer users bought.

competition: Legacy Family Tree

Today, Millennia is known for offering a feature-limited free edition of Legacy Family Tree. However, when they introduced Legacy back in 1997, they were not offering a free edition yet, they were offering a demo edition that did not allow saving changes to databases of over fifty people.
The genealogy software market was becoming quite competitive. Prices of genealogy software had come down since the eighties, and Legacy 1.0 sold for US$ 49,95. Moreover, it included the ability to directly import your data from PAF.


FamilySearch introduced PAF 4.0 on 1999 Jun 25. It wasn't the first genealogy software for Windows, but FamilySearch was possibly the very first, certainly the first well-known genealogy software vendor to offer their software for free. That they did not pay Incline Software any license fee for their Ancestral Quest is not unimportant, but the biggest factor in that decision is probably that they had just introduced their site, and now had a place to offer it as a free download.

competitive pricing

The introduction of PAF 4.0 as a free product made it very popular, and like the introduction of the free Internet Explorer, changed its market significantly. Late in 2000, Millennia announced that Legacy 3.0 had become a free product, started calling it the Standard Edition and introduced the now familiar Deluxe Edition, offering more features. The price came down from US$ 49,95 for Legacy 3.0 upon its introduction early in 2000, to US$ 19,95 for Legacy 3.0 Deluxe late in 2000.


PAF 5 is Unicode-based. Data-entry is not limited to the small number of characters on a single code page. On the contrary, PAF supports every character that Windows support. Technically, it even supports Unicode characters that Windows does not support yet.


PAF 4 and 5 are multi-lingual. That the ostensible English interface is actually an Amglish user interface hardly matters. What does matter is that PAF 4 is available in other languages; French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Swedish. PAF 5 is fully Unicode-based and not only available in Amglish, German and Swedish, but also in Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

LDS product

PAF is the only genealogy application offered by the Latter-Day Saints (LDS), the largest mormon cult. Well, PAF 1, followed by PAF 2 & 3 and then PAF 4 & 5 are really three different applications with the same name, but that is another matter. What matters is that many LDS members will hardly consider a third party product when there is an LDS product. The effect of this parochial attitude should not be overstated, mormons aren't a significant buying force in the genealogy market, but it is there and many small factors like that do add up.
Another small effect is caused by the disproportionately large presence of mormons in genealogical organisations, combined with the fact that people tend to recommend the software they know, providing PAF with another small popularity boost.

FamilySearch promotion

FamilySearch has actively promoted PAF, and in fact continued to do so long after they abandoned both development and maintenance. They abandoned PAF after the release of PAF 5.2.18 on 2002 Jul 23, but continued to promote PAF until 2010 Dec 21. That's the day they introduced a new design for their website.

The impact of continuous promotion of a free product on the home page of one of the most popular web sites should not be underestimated.

All that time PAF enjoyed promotion on a prime advertising spot: the home page, a site that receives about ten million hits per day. I've been informed that third parties have offered good money to have their product promoted in that spot, money that FamilySearch could have invested in say an updated release of GEDCOM, but FamilySearch steadfastly continued to promote PAF instead.

The impact of continuous promotion of a free product on the home page of one of the most popular web sites should not be underestimated. Many newbies go there, see free software being offered, decide to try it, and are content enough with its functionality to never look for anything better.
Moreover, anyone who started out with PAF and does decide to look at alternatives, will find that PAF, although more than ten years old already, compares well to many current products.

baby duck syndrome

Part of the popularity of many older systems is due to the baby duck syndrome; something better may come along, but many existing users are unable to recognise that new system as better, because they tend judge it by its similarity to the one system they know.
The baby duck syndrome creates a first mover advantage; vendors that enter the market early will continue to dominate that market for a long time, even when their products are inferior to those offered by later entrants.

There is no reason to assume that PAF users are less susceptible to baby duck syndrome than other users. This effect certainly plays a role in PAF's continued popularity, but it would be unfair to suggest that baby duck syndrome is the only or even the major reason users stuck with PAF. PAF 5.2.18 really does compare well with many current products, in ways that do matter.

slow industry

Perhaps one reason that PAF users are slow to change genealogy software is that the industry is slow, that genealogy software is slow to change. Users aren't in a hurry to adopt the latest and greatest, because most new features aren't must-have features, but merely nice-to-have features. User can afford to wait for the vendor of their product to catch up.

That viewpoint is debatable, but one thing is sure: PAF hasn't had any new features in more than ten years, and is not going to get any either, yet many users continue to stick with it.

PAF users are not sticking with PAF because they are locked in, but despite the ease with which they can switch to another product.

vendor lock-in

One problem with genealogy software is that there is a standard, but it is not being maintained. Basic genealogy data transfers well from one application to another, but vendors like to offer unique features, and the data associated with those features often does not transfer so well. Users that take advantage of those features suffer vendor lock-in; they cannot change to another product by another vendor without losing some of their data.
That problem is real, and groups like BetterGEDCOM and the Family History Information Standards Organisation (FHISO) aim to create a new standard. However, PAF users aren't locked in. PAF users are not sticking with PAF because they are locked in, but despite the ease with which they can switch to another product.

user interface

PAF's user interface is dated, but not ugly. PAF's user interface is not very cluttered, but is easy to learn and use.

PAF was certainly not designed with one-name or one-place studies in mind. The dialog parade you have to suffer to simply merge two individuals is plain annoying. However, for more common operations, the user interface rarely gets in the way, but simply lets you enter your data.

PAF 4.0 is Ancestral Quest 3.0 LDS Edition, not Ancestral Quest 3.0 Lite.


It is a common misconception that PAF is a rather basic genealogy application. PAF is not without its limitations, but it is a full-featured product; PAF 4.0 is Ancestral Quest 3.0 LDS Edition, not Ancestral Quest 3.0 Lite. That it is easy to use does not imply it is too limited to be useful.
Its multimedia capabilities are not as fancy as those of some newer applications, but it does support media. It has advanced search capability, and the ability to create export selections by constructing filters. Its user interface can be customised through templates. It includes many reports, including consistency checks, and will create web pages.
Many users feel no need to change, because PAF already offers all they need.

GEDCOM support

PAF features good GEDCOM support. PAF's GEDCOM support is not perfect. Although GEDCOM is FamilySearch's own standard, and PAF is their own product, PAF does not support all GEDCOM features, and does not fully adhere to the GEDCOM spec. However, PAF does follow the GEDCOM specification pretty closely and does not employ many extensions.
Moreover, PAF is pretty good at reading third party GEDCOM files, and its GEDCOM reader produces an import log listing any problems it encounters.


PAF and GEDCOM are strongly related. PAF was often the first product to support new GEDCOM features.

character encoding

PAF's GEDCOM export defaults to UTF-8, and can read and write GEDCOM files in any of the four legal encodings: ASCII, ANSEL, UTF-8 and UTF-16 (UNICODE).

When you are using PAF, you're unlikely to encounter a product that cannot read your data, one way or another.

industry support

One way to determine what the major software applications in an industry are is to look at what database formats their applications read. By this definition, PAF is not only a major genealogy application, it is probably the best supported one; most software from other major players will read PAF databases directly.
PAF's GEDCOM dialect is well supported too; not only does PAF sticks fairly close to the GEDCOM standard in the first place, but many applications also support the _AKA and _UID extensions it uses.

When you are using PAF, you're unlikely to encounter a product that cannot read your data, one way or another. It is easy to switch to another application, but not so easy to find another application that matches PAF's features and is supported by all the third-party utilities you use.

large databases

PAF handles large databases, say one hundred thousand individuals or more, with ease. You may not need that now, but it is good to know it can handle it. Your database will not get smaller, it will only get larger. Even with a quarter million individuals, PAF remains responsive. Once in a while, it seems to rebuild its index, but does so in just a few seconds.


Even with large database, PAF remains fast. It starts up fast, never makes you wait for common editing operations, and hardly ever makes you wait for anything else.
PAF exports a GEDCOM file for a database of quarter million individuals in just a few minutes. It generates multi-generation reports containing thousands of individuals in hundreds of pages in a quarter minute. It performs search & replace of misspelled place names in just a few seconds.


PAF is quite stable. The last ever update addressed was a Windows XP stability update. There has been update since, but PAF hardly ever crashes, not even if you keep it running for days.
If PAF does crash, you can restart it, and continue where you left of. Since that last update, corrupted database do not seem to occur at all.

That does not mean PAF is perfect. Somehow, clicking the close button on Windows Vista can hang the entire system, so it is best to avoid that button and keep it running.


PAF is not without limitations.
It has not been updated for over a decade, so that it lacks support for the now popular citations templates isn't surprising.
PAF is infamous for not letting you enter same-sex marriages, but its actual limitation is even is worse than that reputation suggests; PAF bluntly treats any two people who have a child together as a married couple.
FamilySearch's official workaround for this limitation, the text NOT MARRIED in the marriage date field, is not only ridiculous, but both a violation of good user interface design and a violation of their own GEDCOM specification.

PAF has some multimedia support, but it is limited compared to the multimedia features of newer applications.
An annoying misfeature is that PAF is smart enough check birth dates against those of siblings for reasonability, but not smart enough to not complain in the case of twins.
PAF's GEDCOM support is defective. That your data transfers well out of PAF is partly because PAF's GEDCOM support is still pretty good, but ultimately, the reason that your data often transfers completely is that other vendors support the PAF GEDCOM dialect so well.

current alternatives

There are plenty of current alternatives to PAF. Not only are the many genealogy applications to choose from, there even are several free applications to choose from. Incline's Ancestral Quest is the most logical choice for a PAF user who wants a current application without really changing to another application, but many PAF users never paid for genealogy software, and still expect their upgrade to be free. Incline Software introduced Ancestral Quest Basics when FamilySearch stopped advertising PAF, and this lite edition of the current product is free. Although it comes close to and is arguably better than PAF 5.2.18, Ancestral Quest Basics not does not match PAF feature-for-feature, and that may be enough reason for some to stick with PAF.


It is easy to understand why PAF became popular. It was introduced early, for a relatively low price and was the first application from a major vendor to be free. In the early days, when that was still important, PAF was multi-platform. PAF for Windows was never associated with 16-Windows. PAF is Unicode-based and multi-lingual. It is an LDS product that enjoyed continuous promotion on the FamilySearch site. PAF has good GEDCOM support, that includes support for all legal character encodings, and its GEDCOM reader produces an useful import log. PAF is stable, fast and handles large database with ease.

All these features should be common by now, but many continue to be rare. Many PAF users will eventually switch to something else. Many vendors would love those users to choose their product, yet, ten years on, still haven't bothered to match PAF's most basic capabilities.

Many products claim to read PAF databases, but only Unicode-based applications are fully able to read PAF databases. Even today, more than twenty years (!) since Unicode version 1.0, few genealogy applications are Unicode-based.

Ten years since the last PAF update, and more than a dozen years since the release of GEDCOM 5.5.1, few current applications are able read and write all four legal GEDCOM encodings.
In fact, several vendors are still peddling applications that do not support any of the four legal GEDCOM encodings, but only export to the explicitly illegal Windows ANSI encoding.

PAF's user interface is dated, but easy to use. Many current applications have a user interface that matches or exceeds PAF's dated looks, but do not begin to match its easy of use.

Few genealogy applications can handle large databases, and even fewer start and respond fast when used with a large database.
While PAF has gained a reputation for being stable and continues to run on the latest versions of Windows, the best-selling genealogy application is notoriously slow, buggy and unstable, and another ostensibly current application still does not even run on Windows Vista 64-bit, a major Windows version that was released more than five years ago.

PAF is stuck ten years in the past, but many ostensibly current products marketed today belong back in a previous millennium.

These genealogy software vendors suffer from featuritis; they keep focussing on feature lists while ignoring basic capabilities.
They claim all kinds of interesting sounding features when they release another version of their product, but at the same time, never bother to upgrade the dated design and technology that forms the foundation. When you look past their list of features to examine the product's basics, you see a product that hasn't had a real upgrade since its first version, often released long before PAF's latest update.

Sadly, the major reason for PAF users to stick with PAF is not that PAF is so great, but that most of the genealogy software being offered today still lacks the basic capabilities that PAF offered ten years ago already.
For most genealogy software users, a switch to the decade-old PAF would be an upgrade. PAF is stuck ten years in the past, but many ostensibly current products marketed today belong back in a previous millennium.