Web application powerhouse Zoho has just relaunched their online database application builder Zoho Creator, with a barrage of PR comparing it to “MS Access + Visual Basic” moved to the web. Of course, this is the claim that every online database site would like to make: whatever you think of Access, its lifetime sales numbers are huge, and it has been a tremendous success story. And what Web 2.0 property wouldn’t like to be the successor to Microsoft Office?
As an old Access and Visual Basic developer, it’s easy to sneer at such claims. Zoho Creator and its competitors don’t have 1% of the functionality of their desktop cousins, and if I were asked to take the typical large Access or VB application and move it to an online database builder I’d throw up my hands in despair. But taken on its own terms – as a way to rapidly build a web application with a forms-oriented user interface, backed by a relational database, with a reasonably simple event-driven scripting language – Zoho Creator does share some of the philosophy of early versions of Access: it lowers the bar to putting together some types of applications.
When you log in to Creator, you get a big “Create New Application” button as an obvious starting point. This lets you start from a gallery of pre-built applications (project management, help desk, and so on), a blank application, or an imported spreadsheet. From there, you add forms, which again can come from a set of pre-built examples or start blank. The Zoho Creator form builder is an easy to use drag-and-drop environment with plenty of helpful visual cues; I didn’t have to read anything to add radio buttons or textboxes, set labels, change the options in a dropdown, and so on.
Each form you build can have multiple views (single record or list), with security being applied on a view by view and action by action level. You can arrange views into tabs and control who can visit each tab of your application. Behind the scenes, Creator is building a relational database to match your forms, and there is a reasonably obvious way to link forms and so create linked tables (well, reasonably obvious if you understand the basics of relational databases).
There’s also scripting, with a new language called Deluge. Not only does Deluge allow you to attach actions such as validation or sending e-mail to typical events, but Creator form definitions themselves are saved in Deluge, so it enables you to modify forms dynamically, which is actually quite powerful. Zoho claims that you don’t need to be a programmer to use this language, and they provide a drag-and-drop script builder to put together some simple actions. But the “you don’t need to be a programmer” claim was hogwash in Access and VB, and it’s hogwash here; if you don’t understand the rudiments of things like events and boolean logic, Deluge will make no sense to you, and you’ll stick to the easy user interface stuff.
Overall, Zoho Creator is quite impressive for its niche. The learning curve is very shallow, and it’s almost trivially easy to bang out quick data collection and editing applications. Deluge is not a difficult language if you have any experience with programming, though as I said I remain skeptical of its universal appeal.
The main concern I have is that I don’t see any easy way to get data back out of the system: although you can import existing spreadsheets there does not appear to be any obvious way to export the contents of your Zoho Creator database to another format, or to get it on too your own machine. For data that you trust keeping “in the cloud” it looks like a solid choice.