A fine pick-me-up

In a low-key fashion, the Pick database has been pivotal in the running of scores of successful New Zealand businesses. It has endured for three decades and, in all of that time, it has avoided the taint of failing to deliver on what the marketers promise.

A tonic for anyone suffering the effects of a too-rich diet of over-hyped IT products is to be found in the unassuming -- but multidimensional -- form of the Pick database.

I consider it a tonic because, in its low-key fashion, it has been pivotal in the running of scores of successful New Zealand businesses, including Cavalier Bremworth, hardware wholesaler Wilson & Macindoe and, one written about in this issue, Pilkington Glass. It has endured for three decades and, in all of that time, it has avoided the taint of failing to deliver on what the marketers promise.

That's because, from the outset, it never fell into the marketers' hands. Big believers in marketing would argue that's why Pick isn't more widely known. But those, like me, who look on marketing with a slightly more jaundiced eye, might counter by saying the only reason Pick does endure is that its developers emphasised the product rather than the selling of it.

Things could be about to change now, though, since the merger between privately held Pick Systems, the Californian company which developed what started out as the Pick operating system, and Nasdaq-listed Pick tools company Omnis Technology, to form Raining Data. Raining Data will continue development of D3, the database into which the Pick OS has evolved.

A brief history lesson is probably called for. Pick is one of those rare names which was not formed from some arcane acronym but comes from its inventor, Dick Pick (rather a rude name in Dutch; those wanting a translation can email me).

Pick created his operating system-cum-database in the 1960s as part of the US Vietnam war effort, to track the various components of the American killing machine. Subsequently it was sold as an OS running on proprietary hardware from extinct manufacturers like Prime, McDonnell Douglas and Ultimate, in a competitive battle with Unix. Probably because of the preponderance of the mid-size organisations to which it was suited, Pick did phenomenally well in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Its New Zealand representatives -- who claim Pick is installed in about 1000 sites -- have come and gone over the years, with the agency today residing with Sydney-based T Data. But the OS war was eventually lost, and Pick was recast as a database management system (DBMS) running under Unix (and, by now, most flavours of Windows).

Dick Pick died in 1994, an ocurrence eerily marked in this publication with a story accompanying an empty space where his photograph was supposed to be. I blamed the printer but those editorial staff with a belief in the supernatural thought they knew better. In any case, Pick -- the man or the database -- has had precious few headlines since then. Yet it continues to have a loyal user base.

The chief attraction is the database's underlying structure, its multidimensional nature. As explained to me by a developer who's used Pick for about 15 years, that allows more than one level of information to be nested within a database table. So, for example, a Pick database of multiple-component items (Vietnam-era weaponry, say), can record all those items in nested cells within the one table; click on the cell labelled "napalm bomb" and a nested cell records all its lethal parts. This is a simpler way of saving and retrieving data than linked SQL tables, according to Pick champions. It may yet lack a native graphical interface (GUIs can be overlaid using various tools), but who needs one when it's largely character-based information that you're dealing with?

Well, a GUI is one thing Raining Data is promising. Marketing, like it or not, is sure to be another. Until then, when I want an antidote to too much product hype, this story works as a fine pick-me-up.

Doesburg is Computerworld's editor. Send email to Anthony Doesburg and letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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