Meadowlark: Lotus Approach Support and Development

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Lotus Approach database support needed?

Do you need help supporting an existing Approach database?

If you have a Lotus Approach system in use - and there are many out there - which needs some type of support or upgrade, why not contact us? The cost of replacing this software may be prohibitive, whilst a little bit of support and a few enhancements might not be. A database can be upgraded and once again become irreplaceable with a bit of hard work. Replacement with some other database platform, on the other hand may be expensive because a typical Approach database application does so much "out of the box", and these capabilities need to be replicated in any new system that replaces it. This is no mean feat even for an expert database developer. Let me give you two examples.

Lotus Approach Database

Lotus Approach (once owned by IBM) is a comparatively simple database development tool that was intended - along with its Smartsuite siblings (123, Freelance, Wordpro, Organizer) - to compete with the formidable suite of similar offerings from Microsoft.

Some would argue that the IBM lineup was not as fully featured, comprehensive, or popular. The latter at least was certainly true, though I have for example always favoured Lotus Wordpro over Microsoft Word, and the Lotus Approach database development tool over Microsoft Access. In fact Lotus Approach has some advantages over Microsoft Access that has lead us to favour it for developing some database applications.

Why are we Lotus Approach Developers?

We are pragmatists. We use whatever database development tools are appropriate to the budget, context and timescales, and sometimes even today (in 2018), Approach is an excellent choice upon which to base a database.

Customers need databases. A carefully designed database takes time to develop, and time is money. If we as a developer have a customers database to deliver on Monday and four days to deliver it, Lotus Approach can still be hard to beat. In this context we will probably not use Access as the development platform, though we have more experience of using this heavyweight desktop development tool. Access is altogether a more complex beast, and complexity sometimes means raised cost with no benefit.

There is something about Approach that lends itself to swift, needs-focused development. Something that facilitates the development process instead of handicapping it. The developer can focus on delivery and dismiss the endless "how do I do achieve that end result" dilemma. This has important implications for, at the very least, how fast the project is delivered, and how much it costs.

What obstacles are there to using Lotus Approach?

There are surprisingly few obstacles to using Lotus Approach. We talk about the benefits of using Lotus Approach at one of our companion sites The biggest handicap we have found is the Microsoft operating system upon which it runs.

For example, we wrote JobTrac in 1997 and when we moved it across to Windows 7, Windows 8.1, and Windows 10, the only part of the whole system that did not work was not in fact any part of the Approach software or database, it was the Windows batch file system that the Approach application called to fire up a browser. Microsoft had changed their batch file system, and the MSDOS style command no longer worked. Why had Microsoft not made the commands backwards compatible? Fortunately, it was a quick fix, and whilst broken, it in no way impacted the database application.

But Lotus Approach is no longer for sale?

Well, IBM no longer sell it, but EBay always has copies of it. Better still, there are copies to be had for free at We recently downloaded copies of Smartsuite which is the office suite to which it belongs, and Lotus Approach worked fine on Windows 8.1, and we use a particular Approach database on Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 on a daily basis for example.

Running Approach systems on Windows 10, is quite something for software that was originally released in 1991.

Windows 10 is reputed to be Microsoft's last operating system. If that is is the case, users may still be using Approach for a very long time to come, as this supports Approach too.

Another way to run Approach applications is to use virtualisation. For the case of Approach, this is not now necessary, as Approach runs on the most recent of Microsoft's operating systems.

Virtualisation allows users to run old operating systems and thereby old software on computers that are running newer operating systems. Confused? An operating system is just another computer program. You run new software on new operating system so why not run an old operating system (a program) on that new operating system, and then run the old software, perhaps Lotus Approach, within the old operating system? Some examples of virtualisation software are VirtualPC, VirtualBox, VmWare and QEMU. Virtualisation means that you never need to abandon software that has stood the test of time. At Meadowlark we have run Lotus Approach within a Windows XP virtual machine.

Lotus Approach has a number of advantages:

  1. It is remarkably bug free. We have been using it for well over twenty years, and it is an outstanding achievement in software engineering. Generally when our customers have issues with Approach, Approach is not the culprit, it is Windows that has had a tantrum,possibly an Windows update went wrong, and when the Windows issues have been fixed, Approach is fixed too. Not that Approach was broken in the first place.
  2. It is mature, finished and the result of years of development, bug fixes, and a design that has changed little over its life. Perhaps it was good from the start?
  3. It is free and can be downloaded from If you do not like it you can vote with your feet
  4. It is usually exceptionally easy to develop database applications.
  5. It is familiar to generations of PC users as it follows the model of typical Windows user interfaces.
  6. It can run on PC's that are of low specification, and yet run fast on those low spec. machines. It will happily run on a tablet for example that would not be so happy with more resource intensive database systems.
  7. It lends itself to the delivery of low cost, but potentially high quality applications.
  8. It is ideal for providing quick, and easy to use front-end applications that access heavyweight database servers.
  9. It is surprisingly powerful, possessing a programming language much like visual basic, and a macro system that is a doddle to use.
  10. It is classed as an end-user database. What this means is that it provides far fewer barriers to prevent bright I.T. savvy users from developing their own databases without the need for a developer.
  11. It has an ease of access similar to that of a spreadsheet. People use spreadsheets to knock together basic and sometimes crude applications, partly because they are immediately available to them on their desktop. Approach as a free resource is equally accesible.
  12. Despite its age, there is a viable support network out there for Approach users, most of which can be accessed free of charge.

    Disadvantages of Lotus Approach

  1. Lotus Approach is no longer supported by its developer, and so if you have trouble with it, you might need to resort to the internet or printed material for support. Are you comfortable using the internet to resolve your technical issues? Most of us are.
  2. The community of Lotus Approach users is comparatively small, and so do not expect to find many expert developers out there to consult about coding standards, but then how many do you need? They do exist, but you will need to look for them, but that is what the internet is so good at.
  3. Lotus Approach does not have all the bells and whistles of Access, but do you really need them?

What can Approach do that Access cannot?

Try producing a simple but fully working database that is complete and fit to pass on to the customer in say three days. Most developers will say it is not possible. Approach developers would differ. The complete Approach application might not have a single line of user written source code.

Try producing a report in Access where clicking on a report field changes that report in some way. Approach can do this.

Try running a modern version of Access for example on a machine with a very low specification, or on one of Microsoft's many deprecated operating systems. Approach will have no problem. Access will. Ironically Approach runs happily on some very moderately specified Microsoft tablets, where a similar Access database might not.

Approach has been designed in such a way that much of the coding effort in typical database applications is unnecessary. Avoiding unnecessary coding is good. We write thousands of lines of code each year at Meadowlark, but succint code is generally better than voluminous code, and sometimes avoiding coding altogether is best of all.

With Lotus Approach even a novice developer can produce useful macros with very little effort. They are simple.

Lotus Approach is finished. There will be no groundbreaking upgrades, no radical changes to the user interface, and no changes in its fundamental philosophy. Some people find comfort in this continuity.


A free Lotus Approach todo list

It is likely that your current computer will happily run Lotus Approach applications, and we have in mind a tiny Todo list application that we wrote in a morning for you to try. It is called List-do, and here are some simple instructions to get it running.

The ListDo Lotus Approach application took a morning to write, no more than five hours, and yet it is a genuinely useful application.

How to use ListDo

Click on the  Manage List button. This shows a single list entry amongst a number of entries. You can view the other todo items by clicking on the movement arrows at the top of the menu.

You can sort that list by clicking on a field and selecting the Browse/Sort from the menu.

You can add new entries to the list by clicking on the  New Record  button.

You can view a simple report, by going back to the menu and clicking on the  Report  button.

Why not try doing a  Find by clicking on the Find button, then entering some text you want to find in one of the fields?

Now, with that find visible on the ListDo page, click on the Progress tab

A novel Lotus Approach application

Despite the I.T industries lofty claims about efficiency, I.T. is wasteful. We discard old computer hardware to regularly because it will not run the newest operating systems and applications, but might there be a role for the aging hardware that has been overlooked?

Approach applications do not need a modern Windows operating system to run satisfactorily: Windows 2000 or XP will do. Furthermore they do not need a high specification machine.

Try installing a Lotus Approach application on such a retired machine and be prepared for a surprise. A business can be transformed by such an application running on a computer that might otherwise be consigned to the scrapheap. The only precaution you would need to take in this scenario is to ensure that the PC is fully protected from malicious internet activity, and the simplest way to achieve this is to disconnect it from the web altogether. However a network engineer will have some sage advice on how to secure your newly re-purposed computer, perhaps by some less drastic route.

What you can expect from computer hardware in the future?

1. The web will dominate everything, and neuro-scientists will bring the web to the human form via personal subcutaneous implants. This is a step way beyond wearable computing. Implants are under the skin, not part of our clothing.

These wireless devices could monitor everything we do and everywhere we go. We could become human web-servers publishing intimate information about every aspect of our lives.

But look on the bright side. These devices will check our cholesterol levels, our blood pressure, and pre-cursors for all manner of fatal diseases, and we will be part of an ongoing worldwide research project that will gather this big data and process it using artificial intelligence. Medics around the world will then be able to banish most known diseases. The price might be our privacy, but with luck we will live longer.

2. Mobile phones will disappear in their current form. They too will be subcutaneous implants and interface with the nervous system directly and relay their information directly to the retina and ears. Interfacing integrated circuits to the human nervous system has long been a goal of neuro-scientists, and it seems there has been success in this area. The union of man and machine is called the singularity, and it has profound implications for the human race.

Such advances will only be possible if we adapt. It will be difficult and there will be many mistakes along the way.