Review: QuickBase Helps IT Build Powerful Web Apps Quickly
No time to build an application for IT's own use? QuickBase may be the answer.
Like the cobbler’s children who go barefoot, IT departments never seem to have the time or resources to build online applications for its own use: project management, shared document libraries -- you name it, IT does without because it’s busy putting all its focus on building user applications.
Intuit’s QuickBase tackles this problem head-on with speed and grace. You can build your own Web-based application from scratch or use one of several application templates (management projects, contacts, or files), define users and assign permissions, and you’re up and running. You can tweak any application simply and easily: add your own fields, create validation criteria, set field- and record-level security, join tables, build (or modify) forms and reports—all from a simple online interface. You can even build the interface that your users see, such as a “main menu.”
In fact, during the month I tested QuickBase, I did so completely without any printed documentation, and referred to the online help system only twice. Yes, the program is that intuitive—options were self-explanatory and well-organized (I never tripped over complex logic I didn’t need). A couple of clicks and I was editing a form or table, adding a field, or previewing changes. Response time was quick.
No programming skills are required, and apart from building formulas, there’s considerable flexibility built into options throughout the program.
Take the project management application, for example. Click on the “View” option and you can customize any of the predefined views—such as a list of open tasks by the worker assigned or all open tasks arranged by week—with a couple of clicks. Mix and match which views are made available to your users; arrange them in a dashboard in any order you like.
Need a custom view? The View Builder lets you choose the display criteria (only tasks that are complete, for example), sort order, columns to include, and what user interface options you want (you can display data or make it available for editing, for example). You can even use the View Builder to create a calendar based on any date field you choose from your table.
Need a special field for a table? You can define one using the standard field types: text, numeric (including currency), date, checkbox, e-mail address, URL, lookup, or file attachment, or define a custom formula based on the contents of other fields (here again, the interface is remarkably easy to grasp).
Even better—select a field and QuickBase will tell you on which forms the field appears (which it also does before you delete a field). A special check box lets other applications access your field as the source for a shared multiple-choice list.
You can edit in a form or in a grid (spreadsheet-like table). Date fields include a pop-up calendar to select a date, pulldown lists (such as options for the “Status” field) offer an “Add New Choice” option at the bottom so you can customize as you go.
The formula language includes 165 functions—from string manipulations to handling nulls, math (average, mod, rounding), and comparisons (greater than, less than or equal to). QuickBase is not as rich as, say, VBA, but it’s no lightweight either, and it’s particularly strong when it comes to manipulating dates, offering “FirstDayofPeriod” (useful when computing a biweekly payroll) and “WeekDayAdd” (to find the date 12 week days from the current date, for example).
New in the latest version of QuickBase; dynamic forms, which force a user to enter data in one field when another contains a particular value, new charting types, and chart drill down (to see the underlying data). Typically, users will log into QuickBase directly, but you can also create a data entry form for a QuickBase application that you can place on your Web site. Among other advanced features: if you’re already using Microsoft Project, you can exchange information between it and the project management QuickBase application -- using QuickBase as a data entry front-end, for example.
Not everything, however, is as intuitive as I’d like. “Add Similar” is the oddly named button that lets you copy the current record. (The good news: you can copy a record across tables and even across applications using a wizard.) Also, I’d have preferred a drag-and-drop interface (a la Access) to build forms and reports, but I could get what I needed by clicking through QuickBase’s options. It didn’t give me unlimited control, but it was perfectly adequate.
Given that QuickBase is sold as a service, it presents all the same caveats you’d have of any other such “remote” application. Your data is stored on a remote server -- in this case, on Intuit’s servers; given that the same servers store tax records from its TurboTax users, it’s probably a good bet that the data security is high. You can import and export data in a variety of file formats.
Another caveat: The application is only yours for as long as you continue your subscription. Intuit can help you move the application to your own server (as it has with some clients), but doesn't recommend it (the software is designed to support millions of users, so it is an undertaking to support yourself).
QuickBase is sold based on storage used and number of users, beginning at $249/month for 10 users, 5MB of storage, and 100MB of file attachments (additional 5-user licenses are available for $15/month; additional data and attachment amounts are also available). You can get complete pricing information at http://www.quickbase.com.
When IT doesn't have the resources to build its own user-friendly Web apps, QuickBase steps in with a convenient, economical, and appreciated assist.