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For many years I've been using a program called "Family Tree 2.0", which came on a CD with PC Format magazine of July 2001. This software is pretty much obsolete... it won't work on operating systems beyond Windows XP (which is also nearing its end of life), and there seems to be no mention of it on the internet.

I've been looking for alternatives for a few years now. In particular I'm looking for something free, offline (i.e. a program (as opposed to a website), where the data is in my possession only), and ideally cross-platform.

After some research on the 'net, I came across GRAMPS... which pretty much fits the description I just gave. For some reason (which I can't remember), I didn't quite like it. I have been considering writing my own family tree software, but haven't done that yet for two main reasons: (a) lack of time, and (b) reluctance to reinvent the wheel if there are already good programs around.

When looking at alternatives, what are important factors to consider? I would imagine that migration of existing family data is one of them. I had read about the GEDCOM standard a while back, but I have my doubts whether that would incorporate all the data without any loss.

Sidenote: a similar question was asked on Slashdot a couple of years ago.

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I'll just add that it is very rare for GEDCOM to transfer data between different programs without losing some of it. The more you use the "bells and whistles" of a particular programs the more likely that that particular data won't transfer properly- if at all. –  Andy Hatchett Feb 11 '13 at 21:56
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Thanks for the tip. I'll also mention that one thing I find useful in this legacy program is the ability to specify unknowns (e.g. X was born on ?/7/2012). I don't know whether other family tree software supports such a thing... it's very rare in software in general. –  Gigi Feb 11 '13 at 22:11
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GRAMPS supports an unknown like that just fine. Your example would be 2012-07-00 but it has lots of other ways of expressing degrees of precision and known/unknownness. –  TomH Feb 12 '13 at 12:38
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Gigi, your question is attracting votes to close it because it's asking for software recommendations, which is off-topic for this site as per our faq. I suggest editing it to focus on the factors to consider when assessing software options that meet your criteria, rather than asking for product recommendations. –  ColeValleyGirl Feb 12 '13 at 20:31
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Gigi, if the question is focussed on "how to choose" rather than "what to choose", it stands a better chance of being useful to people for longer. Product recommendations have a limited 'shelf life.' Thanks for doing the editing. –  ColeValleyGirl Feb 12 '13 at 20:54

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

For what it's worth, as a family historian and former professional programmer, the number of reasonably well-known open-source, cross-platform family history programs is small indeed. I looked at Wikipedia and there are 6 open-source or freeware items listed plus 2 free but proprietary items. (Feel free to debate categories elsewhere...)

On a completely non-scientific basis, I have heard of 3 of them - GRAMPS, Personal Ancestral File (a.k.a. PAF) and LifeLines. PAF (who is proprietary) is from FamilySearch but has not been touched in ages and its ability to implement GEDCOM is limited (given that GEDCOM is also from FamilySearch, this is the point at which Americans would say "Go figure...") LifeLines does not, I believe, have a GUI interface.

Unless you are psychologically attached to open-source, I would encourage you to look at paid-for software if you are not keen on GRAMPS.

For me, the crucial data interchange factors are:

  • Getting bulk data in and out - despite advertising fluff, the only practical way that this can be done between the majority of programs is via the GEDCOM file format.
  • GEDCOM compatibility (follows on from the previous item). Sad to say it is clear that many programmers of GEDCOM interfaces simply can't read manuals as many GEDCOM files put stuff in the wrong place. And no, it's not the fault of the GEDCOM standard. And the unfortunate thing is that where a programmer has read the manual and taken GEDCOM to its correctly coded maximum, then the chances of recipient software reading that full-fat GEDCOM is correspondingly reduced.
  • GEDCOM extensions - GEDCOM can be extended legally but every extension is, by definition, only guaranteed to be understandable by the creating software.
  • Where GEDCOMs are not produced, or are poorly done, there is a chance that, if the software A is popular, then another popular program B has implemented a custom point-to-point data transfer mechanism between programs A and B. By its very nature of being custom made, this is probably pretty good at time of writing, but afterwards all bets are off if there is no publicly declared format to exchange data.
  • Where GEDCOMs have errors in them, it is possible that software exists to correct the errors - after all, many people have struggled and a few will have produced solutions. Or you might write it yourself...

I have concentrated on the data transfer aspect as the rest is all fairly personal. For instance, some beginners set great store by trees that show everyone in their database. However, as their numbers increase, such trees rapidly become unintelligible and sink in priority.

For the data transfer, I would encourage you to look at GEDCOM - unless someone has a custom point-to-point transfer for your software, it's the only game in town. (And I'm assuming your software could produce a GEDCOM!) You may need to research GEDCOM oddities of each software package that you look at. There are time-limited free trials and size or capability limited free versions of paid-for software that you could trial.

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Thanks for the very detailed and useful answer. Just one thing... is there any software that you'd recommend, and if yes, why? –  Gigi Feb 12 '13 at 17:10
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I started with PAF. However, it has a number of frustrations. I suspect you're beyond the PAF stage. I can only say that I use Family Historian from Calico Pie. If you want hand-holding, it's not for you. If you analyse stuff mentally and think about what records go into your database, it's very much for you. It is advertised as 100% GEDCOM v5.5 (some dispute there if you need to use non-English characters). Its native format is GEDCOM which means you won't get locked into a proprietary format. It also has a good User Group for support. I have no connections with it other than.... –  AdrianB38 Feb 12 '13 at 17:25
    
OK, thanks, maybe I'll check it out. It doesn't need to be hand-holding as you put it... I just want something that feels intuitive, that's all. –  Gigi Feb 12 '13 at 20:48

Anyone who decides to do some genealogic research to create the family tree will sooner or later face the inevitable question: Which software is the right one for this task? I faced this question myself and had to decide amongst several decent available solutions, commercial and open source. So, how can you choose? It is a matter of criteria.
It depends on what features you consider important, what are your expectations from a genealogy program. What exactly do you intend to do with it. After a thorough research, I decided that Gramps was the right software for me.
Let me summarize what made me choose this program and present the factors that I consider very important (in no particular order).

Free and Open Source. Gramps is a free and open source, community project. It is freely distributable under the GNU General Public License which means you can freely use it, copy it, share it and even change it.

Full Unicode support. Language is not a barrier for Gramps. Whatever script you use Gramps offers full Unicode support. In other words, characters for all languages are properly displayed! Being a Greek user, this was one of the most important features for me.

Rich set of tools. Gramps offers a rich set of tools. Research and analysis tools such as event comparison, finding duplicate people, interactive descendant browser, relationship calculator, data filtering, as well as tools for checking the database for errors and consistency.

Powerful graphs. With Gramps you have remarkable control over the produced graphs. You can define the family lines or even the individuals you want to include to portray relationships and you can create complex diagrams in the desired size and orientation, depending on your particular chart printing needs. This is also something that I considered very important. I don’t care much if I can have a fancy border around each box. I do however find it essential to be able to produce high quality, complex and fully customizable graphs in the size that suits my needs.

Wide variety of reports. Graphical reports can present complex relationships easily. Text reports such as individual and family reports as well as detailed ancestral and descendant, kinship, database summary and anniversary reports are amongst the many available options. You can combine them into a single ‘book’ format. You can even export your family tree to a fully operational web page in a snap and share it with your relatives! Now, that is something that comes very handy. A tool that allows to easily present the outcome of your hard work to anyone interested, without special requirements; any pc with a web browser will do.

Translated in many languages. Not an English speaker? No problem! Volunteers have translated Gramps into more than 25 languages, including my native language, Greek.

Expandability. Gramps’ open architecture allows the use of addons to give you more tools to work with your genealogy data. There are plenty of third-party plugins to enhance the program’s functionality which may not be officially part of Gramps. Find the right ones for you or make a feature request to the developers.

Cross-platform. Are you a Linux user? Gramps works with whichever desktop environment you prefer, be it Gnome or KDE. Are you a Windows die-hard fan? Or maybe a Mac aficionado? No problem! Gramps is the only true cross-platform genealogy application. Cool, isn’t it?

Pro’s and hobbyists. Gramps developers strive to produce a genealogy program that is both intuitive for hobbyists and feature-complete for professional genealogists. There is a plethora of features, tools, fields and reports. It is only up to you how deep you will ‘dive’…

Community support. Gramps is a community project, created, developed and governed by genealogists. It is supported by a large genealogy community from all over the world. Users are encouraged to report bugs and request enhancements to Gramps.

In my opinion, which stems from the use of it, Gramps is a very versatile and robust piece of software with many interesting features. It is designed so that it can be used by anyone, regardless of ethnic background. There are, however, several competitors. It is up to you to search, test, compare. Define your own demands, your own “must have” features.

The choice is yours…

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If you're looking for cross-platform, and don't like Gramps, you can try to run a web based program on a server of your own. Webtrees is one such program, but there are many more available on the web.

For all these programs, you will have to use GEDCOM for transport from your current software, unless you have some knowledge about its internal data structures, of course.

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