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The Family Tree - August/September 2003

The Software Shuffle

The high-tech side of genealogy has been abuzz lately with speculation as to which software programs are likely to be in existence six months or a year from now, given the speed with which such genealogical products seem to be appearing, disappearing, or resurfacing under a new name or a new version in the marketplace. For consumers, this is a real concern, particularly if you bought a program a few years ago and are now trying to decide whether to stick with what you've got, upgrade to a newer edition, or switch to something different. What, exactly, is going on?

For what it's worth, here is my take on the situation.

For people using Windows-based computers (we will talk about Macintosh software later), there are now two "gorillas" in this particular jungle: Personal Ancestral File (PAF) and Family Tree Maker (FTM). In terms of sheer numbers, these programs are the most widely used by a sizeable margin, for the simple reason they have both been around a long time and have enjoyed a lot of exposure. In the case of PAF, distributed by the LDS Church, the program's ease of use, cheap price (currently free), and strong backing from the Church have made it a natural choice for many newcomers to genealogical computing. In the case of FTM, distributed through retail stores and other commercial channels, user-friendliness, discounted pricing, and aggressive advertising have also been key factors behind its success.

But here is where the plot thickens.

The Windows version of PAF is actually a derivative of a program called Ancestral Quest (AQ), developed by Incline Software, which sells its program directly to the public The Church has tweaked the product in various ways, so in its PAF remake, it is no longer the original program that Incline supplied. At the same time, Incline has added features to AQ that are not available in PAF, giving AQ another level of distinctiveness.

A good example of this is what Incline calls "collaboration"--an interesting concept that permits a registered owner of AQ to post a copy of a file on the Internet for other people to "check out" (like a library book) and edit with new information, then transmit back to the Internet for someone else to check out. Since the software's owner decides who has check-out rights, there is no risk of random access to the shared file. The advantage of collaboration is that all users of the common file can view the file at any time and see the latest changes, thereby eliminating the need to exchange information through slower or more complicated means. Because the shared file is stored on Incline's server, it is completely separate from any AQ files that users are maintaining on their own computers. Users can always download information from the shared file if they want to.

In addition to its own sales efforts, Incline has licensed AQ to several commercial partners to sell under other labels. You are most likely to encounter it under the name Ancestry Family Tree (AFT), marketed over the Internet by and its subsidiary, How long this AQ byproduct will remain "out there" is anybody's guess when you consider that also has another subsidiary,, which just happens to be the owner of FTM. Since FTM and PAF (essentially AQ in disguise) are competitive programs, both designed to be "everyman's" software, it is possible that will lose interest in AFT (also AQ in disguise) and replace it with some variation of FTM. Right now, that's not happening, but it could, for the following reason: has a reputation as a graveyard for genealogical software. At various stages of its corporate life, it has purchased three programs--Ultimate Family Tree, Family Origins, and Generations--but no longer sells or supports two of them (UFT and FO) and is not actively promoting the third, whose days therefore may be numbered. remains committed to its bread-and-butter product, FTM, which the company continues to upgrade with new features each year. By the time you read this, Version 11.0 should be hitting the shelves.

So, what other programs are available besides PAF, FTM, and AQ?

Another product worth looking at is Legacy from Millennia Corp. Like Incline Software, Millennia is a small, independent company trying to carve out a niche for itself in a market dominated by two very large vendors. Like AQ, Legacy is a feature-rich program that is constantly evolving as new changes are introduced. Both programs are available in free trial versions and in complete, commercial versions as downloads or on disk.

By itself at the top of the food chain (as measured by its many capabilities) is The Master Genealogist (TMG), developed by Wholly Genes Software, another independent. This is a powerhouse of a program aimed at the serious researcher who understands that the Internet is not a substitute for getting down-and-dirty in primary records. The program is heavy on managing numerous kinds of information and on documenting your sources for that information. It is detail-driven. As you might suspect, it is not my No. 1 choice for ease of use. To get your money's worth from TMG, you will need to read the manual first--which is probably a good idea in any case.

Perhaps we should pause at this point to clarify one issue. Any discussion about genealogical software must be careful to distinguish between a program's ability at input (data entry) and its ability at output (reports). For most consumers, software is synonymous with the latter. If they think about it at all, most people think of input as simply a matter of typing in names, dates, and places, and possibly some notes. More important for most users is: "What will my information look like when I print it out?

Developers are very much aware of this bias toward output and have tried to address it. Today, all programs can generate an array of ancestor charts, descendant charts, family group sheets, and other reports. The makers of FTM, in fact, have made it part of their mantra to emphasize their software's reporting strengths. Unless you have very specialized requirements for printouts, most of today's programs should meet your needs in this regard.

But keep in mind that reports are no better than the data they contain, no matter how many formats you can produce or how attractive those formats are. Genealogical software is subject to the same basic rules constraining other software. And Rule Numero Uno is: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Which brings us back to the subject of data entry. Software should function as a kind of insurance policy against both perishable and erroneous information; it should encourage you to think systematically, even analytically, about what you are entering, how you are entering it, and why you should endeavor to do the job correctly the first time.

Computers lend themselves to this purpose quite handily, but they are not babysitters; you can defeat even the best software by "dumping" information into your database with the idea of "cleaning it up" later, or by entering information inconsistently, or by omitting sources, or by including sources but failing to link them precisely with the details you are recording. The decisions you make at the front end will determine whether your reports down the road are anything more than pretty.

What about new genealogical programs? Are there any new kids on the block that you might want to consider in addition to the programs I have already described? I am aware of two: RootsMagic and Family Tree Legends.

RootsMagic (RM) is the creation of FormalSoft Inc., the same company that developed the now-defunct Family Origins. Since I have not yet tested it, I can't compare RM with other programs, but FormalSoft is hoping that FO's customer base, now abandoned by, will turn to RM as their program of choice.

Family Tree Legends (FTL) is the brainchild of a new company called Pearl Street Software, which is marketing its product as "the first truly Internet-intelligent genealogy application." This early in the game, I can't say how accurate such a claim may be. FTL appears to take the path of programs like FTM and AFT, which make it easy for you to search web sites affiliated with the programs' manufacturers. FTL links you to the "Global Tree" database at, a site developed by the same person who developed FTL.

To sum up, PAF and FTM will continue to be popular because a lot of people are using them and they are supported by large organizations. Also, to give credit where credit is due, they are very serviceable programs. The only caveat here is that the LDS Church is a nonprofit entity that may or may not decide to throw more money at developing Personal Ancestral File, whereas has every reason to stick with its present marketing strategy.

That leaves two strong contenders--AQ and Legacy--for those consumers interested in alternative products. Whether RM and FTL can also compete in this group remains to be seen.

Lastly, in the Windows market, is TMG, a one-of-a-kind product that has assumed the position of cutting-edge technology in genealogical computing. I think we can expect a lot more innovation from this high-end leader.

As for users of Macintosh computers, the news is all good: one company--Leister Productions - has captured this field with a product of such high quality that it makes no sense to shop for anything else. The program, Reunion, is one slick package. Get out your credit card.

Copyright of Stuart at

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