Alpha Software is focused on enabling developers to create robust, data-driven business applications that run on any PC, Tablet or Smartphone in the fastest, most efficient and cost-effective manner possible.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Long live user groups

It should be obvious to anyone who follows the material coming out of Alpha for the past year that we're clearly focused on the enterprise.

That said, the Alpha Software ecosystem continues to support and encourage individual developers, VARS, and consultants around the globe, all of whom have made Alpha Five successful over the past several decades.

And many of them congregate and network today the same way they did 20 years ago -- in small user groups scattered about the globe.

When I first got into this business, user groups were the only way technology folk could meet and greet. There was no popular public Internet, and online services were in their infancy, and prohibitively expensive.

Clearly there are more efficient ways for technology professionals to communicate today, including (in our case) the Alpha Forum or this blog. But the classic user group is far from dead.

Recently Alpha Five Developer Jim Smith was invited by the Brookdale Computers Users Group (BCUG) to demo Alpha Five Platinum to members. The guys and gals video taped the presentation, and provided us with these highlights, which we thought old timers here (like me) would enjoy.

UPDATE: BCUG asked me to post their official blurb. Done!

The Brookdale Computer Users Group meets at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, NJ on the 3rd Friday each month in room MAS100 at 7 PM. They also have 14 workshops that meet separately throughout the month to discuss subjects such as Windows, Word, Excel, Access-VBA, Multimedia, Internet, Macintosh, Linux, QuickBooks, etc. For more information and current schedules, go to

A5 V9 feature peek #41: Exporting to SQL databases

With Alpha Five Platinum, you can easily export data form local .dbf tables to remote SQL databases. When you create a new Export operation, a dialog is displayed where you can choose standard export (say, to a text file) or an AlphaDAO export to a remote database.

If you select the "remote database using AlphaDAO" option, the AlphaDAO export builder pops up. The first step is to specify the connection string to the remote database that you want to export tables. After you've connected to the remote database, the builder looks like this:

You can select one or more tables to export. For each table that you select to export, you can define the following properties:

1. Name of the table to create in the remote database.

2. List of fields to export. If you leave this blank, all fields are exported. You can specify a list of fields as well as expressions. For example, you might want to export 'alltrim(firstname) + " " + lastname' as a single field, rather than exporting 'firstname' and 'lastname' as two separate fields.

3. Filter expression, to select which records to export. The filter expression can include arguments. For example: city = :whatcity. If you use arguments in your filter, you must define the arguments by clicking the smart field in the Arguments property. Alpha Five will prompt for argument values at runtime.

4. Order expression, to define the order in which the records should be exported.

5. Query flags, to control how the filter is executed.

6. Create Table statement that should be used to create the remote table where the exported records will be placed. In most cases, you won't set this property. Alpha Five will create a default Create Table statement for you. By defining your own Create Table statement, you can control the data type of each column in the exported table.

7. Whether existing tables of the same name in the remote database should be dropped before tables are exported. You can select Yes, No, or Prompt.

Take a look at this video to get a better idea of how to export to SQL databases.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #40: Import/export connection strings

In Alpha Five Platinum, it's easy to move your saved connection strings from one database (i.e., an .adb file) to another.

We've created two new menu items to help you manage your connection strings: export connection strings, and import connection strings. These tools let you export your connection strings to a text file and then import them into a different database.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #39: SQL query guide

Many of you depend on Alpha Five's genies (because -- let's face it -- they're awesome). Alpha Five Platinum gives the SQL query genie a big boost.

Here's a list of the changes we made:

1. The SQL query genie can now be displayed as a MDI window.

2. Several instances of the SQL query genie window can be opened simultaneously.

3. The SQL query genie can now be opened directly from the Tools | External Databases menu command when the control panel has the focus.

4. The toolbar now has a connection string drop-down that allows you to easily execute a query against different databases.

5. The Action button on the toolbar now brings up a dialog that lets you to perform an action with the SQL query you specified.
There are also more actions available when you click the Action button. You can copy your SQL to the clipboard, import the data from the query as an Alpha Five table, create a passive-link table from the data in the query, or create a new layout (report, label, or letter) with the data in the query.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #38: Scaled images in lookups

Drop-down lookups in Alpha Five Platinum now inherit many of the new features of browse layouts, such as the ability to display scaled images. In the image below, the lookup window is displaying thumbnail images of each sales person.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #37: More with field rules

I've already told you about some of the new options with lookups in Alpha Five Platinum. But wait -- there's more! The lookup window can also be resized.

In the screen shot below, the height of the window has been increased. If the lookup has multiple columns, the columns can be resized. Alpha Five will remember your settings, so the next time you open the lookup, the columns will be correctly sized.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #36: Field rules

One can't have too many options for your lookups, so we added more in Alpha Five Platinum. The new table lookup field rules let you display lookups as pop-up or drop-down menus.

We've made a number of improvements to our drop-down options. Previously the option to edit records in the lookup list was not supported when the lookup was displayed as a drop-down. Not anymore.

In the image below, an edit icon appears in each row. Clicking on the edit icon will close the drop-down and open the associated form to edit the lookup value.

Also, when the option to allow users to enter new records in the lookup table is enabled, a hyperlink appears at the top of the drop-down list, as shown below. Previously the entry was at the bottom of the list, and users were not likely to see it unless they scrolled the list all the way to the end.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How to use Web Templates and Flash in Alpha Five

I recently received a message from a prospective Alpha Five user asking about the possibility of using web templates, Flash, and getting graphics to display in Alpha Five. I thought I'd share the responses from our team here on the blog, in case any readers have the same questions.

Here's what Jerry Brightbill, Alpha Software Ace Application Developer, had to say (this is unedited; I pasted it from his e-mail verbatim):

The actual pages produced by our components and pages are standard HTML, with most code being XHTML compliant. Our own server system allows us to use our existing Alpha proprietary Xbasic language for any server side actions.

The server recognizes and renders standard HTM / HTML pages (pages with .HTM or .HTML extensions), but adding the .a5w extension tells the server to process any Alpha Five code on the page. This process is similar to other server side scripting languages such as asp or php.

Our process includes a number of Genie-driven builders that allow a developer to create rather complex constructions very easily with almost no coding.

The grid component is the most powerful. You can build grids with a specified number of rows and record navigation to see all records; view, enter, and edit records; create multiple layouts such as tabular, columnar, and stacked columnar; and use many formatting options.

The data can be the native DBF or a wide range of supported SQL and ODBC compliant data sources. For example, if you are using a grid and the data source is SQL Server, you have to create a connection string and may have to write a select statement to get the data. But the system handles all updates and inserts. We even have easy to follow Genies for building the connection strings and creating the queries.

To get to your specific questions.

Can we use Web templates?

Absolutely. Many developers start with existing page Web templates and then replace sections with Alpha Five components. In some cases, the developer may have to modify style sheets or move a few elements for styling, but often the result is almost identical to the original template.

If the new page contains any Alpha content, just save the page with the a5w extension and the server will process it correctly. We have been adding AJAX capability to the system, and with AJAX, you can even use an unmodified HTML template.

An AJAX code page runs on the server and sends back just the data needed to populate the various existing controls. The JavaScript for the AJAX is fairly mature. Quite a number of developers have been writing their own code pages with Xbasic, and the results can be spectacular.

How do we get the graphics to display?

If you select "Execute" from the HTML editor, the page will run in "Live Preview." Live Preview is a quick, temporary look at the page. Live Preview is not intended to provide full functionality. It does not publish images, and you may just see the placeholders.

If you publish the project to a target folder using the Local Webroot profile as though it were a final product, the images should all publish automatically. We recommend publishing the application and running it from the local Webroot to properly test the project. This sets up the same environment as a production setup, and gives an accurate representation of how the final product will perform.

When you add an image to the project, it's typically copied to the project folder. Many developers add an "image" folder under the main project folder, and save all images there. This allows explicit publishing of the whole folder, which ensures all of the image will exist when needed.

Can you use Flash?

Absolutely. Most flash is run from a link or some action that requests the Flash file from the server. Our server then sends the requested file back to the client. The client browser runs the Flash, using the proper plug-in.

If you have any questions about what you can or can't do with Alpha Five, don't hesitate to shoot me an e-mail, or post a question here or on our message board.

A5 V9 feature peek #35: Column formatting

When information doesn't fit into a column in Alpha Five Platinum, and you don't want to wrap the text, you can let the user know that there is more to be seen using a new formatting option to show ellipses. Because let's face it, you always have something more to say.

In the image below, the Company column is formatted to show ellipses. You'll notice on the third line, South Bend Auto Repair has been formatted to read "South Bend..."

Secrets of Virtual Private Servers

A Virtual Private Server (VPS) doubles as a machine to develop your Alpha Five Web applications, and a place to host them.

It's not hard to move a local Alpha Five development environment (or other Windows programs) onto a VPS or dedicated server. Requirement #1: a broadband connection. You'll need broadband performance to make this work.

Next you'll need a dedicated host. Unlike oil prices, hosting costs have been dropping. Clive Swanepoel of ZebraHost, an Alpha Five hosting partner, is offering a VPS starting at $34.95 a month.

Clive and I were chatting today (which prompted this post). He told me he's seeing a steady increase in the number of Alpha Five shops accessing VPSes or dedicated servers via their standard Windows XP or Vista remote desktop connection. Instead of building locally, uploading, and then deploying remotely, they're creating their applications right on the server.

Frankly, this was an eye-opener for me. But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense for anyone building Web apps. The advantage, of course, is that they can access their source app from any Internet connection, anywhere in the world. And that means higher service levels for their users or customers.

It also means developers can build and deploy Alpha Five Web apps from sources other than Microsoft Windows, such as a the Mac OS or Linux distros.

Another advantage of this approach: you can backup a VPS or dedicated server, using the Virtuosso control panel at ZebraHost. The backups are stored securely on the network, and are accessible or recoverable with a click.

If you've been in this business as long as I have -- from the earliest days of MS-DOS and green screens that weren't networked, even locally -- the ability to build, deploy, and manage apps remotely, wirelessly, from anywhere there's an Internet device is really quite incredible.

By tapping the power of a VPS, you can code and support Alpha Five apps anywhere. A word of warning, however. Do NOT work on your apps in the bathroom. That's a good way to get electrocuted, and I don't need a lawsuit.


Monday, April 21, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #34: Image browse control

In case you haven't noticed, Alpha Five Platinum is all about giving you more control (we know that's how you like it). The image below shows an example of a browse with an image browse control.

The table has a rating field with a value between 0 and 5 for every customer. In Alpha Five Platinum, an icon is displayed in the rating column instead of a number.

Friday, April 18, 2008

SD Times' sexiest cover story yet

I told you AJAX was sexy. This continues to prove it.

The launch of Alpha Five Platinum is today's lead story on Software Development Times.

Click the thumbnail to read the article.

Thanks to senior editor Robert Mullins for giving us the ink!

A5 V9 feature peek #33: Browse toolbox

Yesterday, I told you about some new possibilities with the Alpha Five Platinum browse controls toolbox. Today, let's open up the toolbox to get a peek inside.

The browse controls toolbox makes it easy to place buttons and images in browse cells. There are multiple actions and enhancements that you can now add to your browses.

Open Form: Put a button or hyperlink in a browse cell to open a new form. This form will often be filtered so it shows the same record as the current browse record. This action is commonly used to open a form that shows more detail for the current record.

Print/Preview Layout: Put a button or hyperlink in a browse cell to print or preview a layout. The layout will often be filtered to show the same record as the current browse record.

Run an Operation: Put a button or hyperlink in a browse cell to run a saved operation.

Generic Action: Put a button or hyperlink in a browse cell to run any Xbasic code.

Image: Place an icon in a browse cell. The icon is typically dynamically selected based on some value in the current record. For example, if you have a browse showing a list of customers with credit ratings between 1 and 5, you could dynamically select a different icon for each customer based on their credit rating.

Text: Place text in a browse cell. The text can be static or dynamic, based on some value in the current record.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #32: Browse layout

We've created a new toolbox for editing browse layouts in Alpha Five Platinum. The toolbox allows you to more easily insert buttons and images in both stand-alone and embedded browse cells.

Plus, new genies make it even easier to insert buttons for common tasks, such as opening a form to show more detail for the current row, printing a report that is filtered on the current row, or running an operation that is filtered on the current row. Browse away, developers.

Gartner is broken

PC World covered Garter's pronouncement that "Windows is broken." I tried to join the fray of comments, but the input box limited me to 1,000 characters. So I'm posting my response here, and hopefully PC World's moderators will let me post a link to this as a comment.

Here's what I think.

I've been a Microsoft Windows developer for nearly 20 years. It seems to me that we Windows developers are caught between opportunity and exploitation. We know Windows has a lot of issues ... believe me, we do! At the same time, if you are building a business tool or application, and you intend to maximize your revenue, you had better consider Windows as your target platform.

What about Windows Vista? What a nightmare! Not necessarily because it broke everything, but because we didn't jump on the bandwagon when Microsoft started talking about using the right directories for working files (all the "certified for Windows" stuff)10 years ago.

Once User Account Control arrived with Windows Vista, installing and running applications depended on following those rules. Is Vista S-L-O-W? Not if you have the latest multi-core processor with lots of memory.

It really is hard to fault Microsoft. They did what every other software company wants to do. They grew, became ubiquitous, and ultimately saturated the market. How do you make money after you've sold to nearly your entire population of customers, including international? Well, for one thing, upgrades.

But, what if people don't want to upgrade? Answer: you make them. You create a deliberate path that demands new hardware (and therefore new licenses), change the environment so that newer software won't run on the old machines, and add enough features to create a "Wow!" factor.

So now the hardware and software vendors have a continuous revenue stream ("Updated for Windows Vista"), and Microsoft collects the rent from everyone.

It amuses me that Gartner thinks that development times are too long. I'm sure Microsoft would like to sell a new version every year. It isn't only impractical; it ignores the constraints of inline updates to an aging operating system code base that at least "appears" to be backward compatible.

This has been a problem since the early days of Intel's architecture. Personally, I think the .NET initiative might create the kind of separation required to finally let go of the pure x86-aware applications.

More importantly though, updating software to work for a new operating system and planning rollouts of new systems are tedious tasks that distract from the core business of both software vendors and IT.

The longer Microsoft takes to polish a new operating system, the more time developers and IT management have to get their businesses and software ready for the transition. And yes, every new release of Windows reminds us that we would like to be less dependent on Microsoft and have more interoperability and options.

Cloud computing has a lot to offer; no doubt about it. The issues (aside from privacy, security, and availability) are not so much whether it is a good approach, but how to make the transition, and how to encourage the best software developers to create not one, but all, of the key killer applications for the new platform.

Before IT can give up the back-office systems of today, they need to be able to cost-effectively and truly customize, not just "virtualize." And they need a friendly, stable, and efficient desktop environment to work from that blurs the implementations that are local, on-site, and cloud based. (Remember all of the Java applets that just didn't quite look at home on Windows?)

All in all, I'm not sure that virtual storage, Web services, and application clusters don't present another opportunity for Microsoft. Google, Amazon, EMC, IBM, and Oracle all have designs on being the next Microsoft as the paradigm shifts.

And it will shift, even if not completely or permanently. This would be the time for the Microsoft development staff to create a next-generation operating system that encompasses all of the appliances available. And if they don't, I'll just outsource them and buy a better and cheaper one in a few years from China.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The WSJ photo that never was

I don't know if I'm a typical software company chairman or not, but those of you close to me know that I spend darn near 100 percent of my time talking to customers. I'm very big on phone calls, conference calls, Glance demos (I love Glance!), and of course, e-mails.

Despite constant prodding from my PR team, I have not fired up an instant messaging client. I do so much e-mailing now, which is my other main form of customer communication, that I'm not sure I could handle the constant intrusion of IM.

What's my point? Even though I'm a high-touch guy and prefer phone to e-mail, in reality, I'm a low-touch guy, since most of my relationships are electronic.

And it occurred to me that the overwhelming majority of my customers, many of whom I have close personal relationships with, wouldn't even recognize me if they bumped into me on the street. Likewise, I wouldn't recognize them!

But I think I've found a solution. As readers know, I was recently interviewed by The Wall Street Journal for its cricket story. Amid our conversations, Emily, the writer, mentioned she could use a photo. If I had one, she'd pass it on to the editors for consideration.

Rather than take a head shot with a digital point-and-shoot, my PR team suggested we provide the Journal with a professionally shot high-res (300 dpi) photo, because they wouldn't run a low-res 96 dpi thingie.

OK, so we hired a local Boston photographer. Sadly, our shots didn't make the paper. They they went with what looks to be a stock image of some cricket players. But now I have these photo$, and I'd like to do something with them.

So without further ado, here's the photo I sent to The Wall Street Journal that never ran.

That's me on the right, and my good friend Altaf, who's one of few people that I have met in the physical world {grin} on the left. Altaf's company, ListEngage, is one of our partners. They help us with our opt-in direct e-mail campaigns. He is also quite the cricket fan, and I couldn't take the photo without him!

Now if you see me on the street, you have no excuse not to say hello!

A5 V9 feature peek #31: Saving in Excel

If you thought Ctrl+S couldn't get any better, you're wrong. Saving options are broader in Alpha Five Platinum. You can now save reports, labels, and even (gasp!) letters as Excel files.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #30: User defined Dock Panels

Dock Panels are the busy little bees of Alpha Five. They're used in script, HTML, form, report, label, and letter editors.

With user-defined dock panels, you can create your own Xdialog windows. See what all the buzz is about in this video.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Wall Street Journal discovers cricket

I've been so busy with the launch of Platinum that I completely neglected to share an important WSJ article with you. Journalist Emily Flitter penned a very interesting piece on the power of cricket as a business development tool. I especially like the part about Alpha Software's love of cricket (I kid you not).

A5 V9 feature peek #29: Embedded browse layouts

Alpha Five Platinum lets you embed browse layouts in Xdialogs. Just design the browse layout in the browse layout editor, and then a single command writes the Xdialog code for you.

That's right, a single command! What are you going to do with all this extra time on your hands? How about you watch this video demonstration?

Friday, April 11, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #28: Embedded status bar

Nothing passes the time like staring at a status bar on the bottom of your computer screen. It's one of life's simple pleasures ... if, for example, you enjoy things like picking your belly button lint or watching the grass grow.

That's why in Alpha Platinum, you can embed the status bar object directly in your Xdialogs. You can still stare at it and zone out for a few seconds. It's just not at the bottom of the screen anymore.

Instead of zoning out, though, you could watch this video demonstration to see how it works.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #27: Table Lookups

When a lookup is displayed as a drop-down box in Alpha Platinum, it's not your same-old lookup. Now the lookup window can display images, and can be resized. Plus, entries inside the window can be edited, and new values can be added to the table displayed in the lookup window. Take a look at the lookup in this video.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Cloudstorm: Google's gambit

Unless you've been living in a cave (which I assume you're not as you're reading this today), you've heard Google has unleashed its new App Engine for coding in the cloud.

Following in the steps of Amazon, Google's App Engine could well be the next big thing for business application development. Or not.

Rather than bore you with my thoughts here, go to TechCrunch, where I'll bore you with a comment on the topic (keep scrolling, I'm down there).

Just kidding, of course. Developing "in the cloud" is an emerging technology that could well fortell the start of a trend. It's something we are watching closely here at Alpha.

AJAX loves your grids

Grab a napkin. This video will get your mouth watering over all you can do with AJAX in Alpha Five Version 9 Platinum. Take a look at the power and efficiency of a grid connected to a database using AJAX callbacks and lookups, tapping a U.S. Postal Service database.

A5 V9 feature peek #26: Interactive Reporting

Alpha Five Platinum lets you to create reports with active buttons and hyperlinks. When you preview a report to the screen, these buttons and hyperlinks can display related reports and forms.

This video gives you a demo on interactive reporting. And this one shows you how to create interactive reports in Alpha Five Version 9.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #25: AlphaDAO Export Builder

Alpha Five's genies are whipping up some new magic in Alpha Platinum. As you know, importing data is easy with Alpha Five. Now the new AlphaDAO Export genie/builder in Alpha Platinum lets you export data from Alpha Five tables to remote databases. You can define an export job where multiple Alpha Five tables are exported at once. You can also select which records and fields to export from each table.

See the exporting in action in this video.

Monday, April 07, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #24: Web Content Supercontrol

The Web Content Supercontrol lets you to map out Web content in a form's window. There are several pre-built templates (Google Maps, Google Image Search, Google Search, MSN Maps, and Yahoo Maps), and you can add your own.

Templates have placeholders for field values that are automatically obtained from field values in the current record. Make a mental map of the process with this video.

Friday, April 04, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #23: PDF Viewer Supercontrol

The PDF Viewer Supercontrol lets you view PDF files in a window on a form. The name of the PDF file to display can be dynamically built from data in the current record. Video demo, anyone?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #22: Calendar Supercontrol

Now that you know what time it is, we bring you months and dates with the Calendar Supercontrol. This feature works just like the clock, allowing you to put a calendar on a form, and bind the control to any date field or variable in the underlying table on which the form is based. When you change the date on the calendar, the value in the field bound to the calendar changes too. Watch this video for a demo.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A5 V9 feature peek #21: Clock Supercontrol

What time is it? How long did that take? These are universal questions, and if you need that information in a form, the Clock Supercontrol is your man. It allows you to insert an analog clock, and bind the control to any short-time field or variable in the table on which the form is based. You can change the time shown on the clock by dragging on the clock hands, and the value in the field that is bound to the clock will change. Watch this video to see how it ticks.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Alpha Five on fire, online

It's been two weeks since InfoWorld's Martin Heller suggested Alpha Five v9 was ready for prime time in the enterprise. His post ignited a firestorm. Fourteen days and 48 posts later, developers are still weighing in with their reactions.

A5 V9 feature peek #20: Report Preview Supercontrol

Think of the all-powerful Report Preview Supercontrol as a matchmaker. It's a great way to show related data to the current record.

The Report Preview Supercontrol allows you to draw a window on your form and display reports, labels, or letters in the window. The filter expression for the report that is displayed in the window can be based on data in the current record, so when you navigate from one record to the next in the form, the report shown in the window is automatically updated. Watch the Report Preview Supercontrol in action.

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