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GEDitCOM 1.0 for the Power Macintosh

by John A. Nairn

Two of my hobbies are genealogy and computer programming, but I am better at computer programming than I am at genealogy. Because of my dissatisfaction with commercial genealogy applications (more about that later), I decided to combine my hobbies and write my own genealogy application. Sometimes I regretted that decision; writing a full-featured and well-documented Macintosh application is a big job. It has taken nearly two years, but version 1.0 of my program, which is called GEDitCOM, is finally done. Here is my brief description of how I think GEDitCOM can improve electronic genealogy. You can download GEDitCOM on the internet at; parts of GEDitCOM are free and parts require a modest shareware fee.

The Myth of GEDCOM Applications

My dissatisfaction with commercial genealogy programs started when I found the definition of the GEDCOM 5.5 standard on the internet at
. GEDCOM is a genealogical data base standard maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormons). I knew that many applications claim to be "GEDCOM Compatible," but when I read the GEDCOM documentation I found that GEDCOM provides an enormous amount of flexibility that can not be found in any commercial application. For example, GEDCOM can document numerous types of individual and family attributes and events; it provides robust methods for documenting your research with source citations, information about repositories, data-specific text notes, multimedia objects, and much more.

How can programs that do not provide the many features of GEDCOM call themselves GEDCOM compatible? The answer is they really only provide limited GEDCOM support; they should not be called GEDCOM applications. The processing of becoming a registered GEDCOM product involves having the output of your program certified as a valid GEDCOM file. Valid output is an important prerequisite to GEDCOM compatibility, but GEDCOM registration does not mean the application can actually import GEDCOM files correctly. In fact many, if not all, commercial applications do a poor job of importing GEDCOM files. I tried creating a simple GEDCOM file, admittedly with a wide variety of GEDCOM data objects, and importing it into several commercial genealogy programs. None of them imported the data well. Some complained of numerous errors in the file (there were no GEDCOM errors), most deleted data it did not understand (a nightmare for genealogists is to lose data), one could not even understand the standard GEDCOM method for specify approximate dates (such as "BET 3 Jun 1912 AND 10 Jun 1912"), and one changed all the birth dates of individuals to the date the record was last changed (a standard GEDCOM structure lets you mark each data record with a last-changed date).

The Philosophy of GEDitCOM

I had two goals in mind when I started GEDitCOM that would hopefully make it a new type of genealogy application. First, I wanted an application that was 100% compatible with GEDCOM and therefore could tap all the features of GEDCOM. GEDitCOM accomplishes this goal. In fact, GEDitCOM uses GEDCOM as its internal data base. There is never a need to "import" a GEDCOM file. You simply read the file and view and edit it with GEDitCOM. This direct reading feature makes GEDitCOM an ideal helper application when browsing GEDCOM files on the internet. You can quickly open and view any GEDCOM file without any file conversion steps.

Second, I wanted GEDitCOM to be completely customizable by the user. GEDitCOM is best viewed as a customizable viewer/editor for GEDCOM files. Customization is accomplished by the user writing templates that tell GEDitCOM how to display and edit any type of GEDCOM data. Remember, I like computer programming; by writing templates, any user can "program" GEDitCOM to be exactly the type of genealogy application he or she wants. You can even customize GEDCOM to hide various types of GEDCOM data objects. They will remain in the file (thus no genealogy data ever gets lost when using GEDitCOM) but will be hidden from view. If you hide enough data you can make GEDitCOM as limiting as typical commercial applications. I think it is better to use GEDitCOM to tap all the genealogy features of the GEDCOM standard.

The Default GEDitCOM Format

Customizing GEDitCOM by writing templates is fairly easy, but not every genealogist will want to program GEDitCOM. I wrote therefore wrote a complete set of templates that comes with GEDitCOM and provides virtually 100% access to all of GEDCOM. This set of templates is called the "Default GEDitCOM Format."

The "Default GEDitCOM Format" is very different in philosophy, from typical genealogy software. Most genealogy applications design screen layouts which are nothing more than blank forms. All you can do is type data into the forms. If something does not logically it into any form cell you must shove it off to miscellaneous notes. To avoid having tremendously long forms with many empty cells, the possible data options are usually limited to the most common ones such as birth information, death information, and perhaps a few events. In contrast, the default GEDitCOM format is much more flexible. It formats the screen layout on the fly depending on what data is present in a particular GEDCOM record. If you have lots of information about an individual's attributes and events, that data will show up on the screen. If you do not have much data, you will see just the data you have and not an endless display of empty form cells. As you learn more about any individual, you can use standard GEDitCOM methods to attach new data fields to the data record.

I think the flexible-format-on-the-fly approach to the display and editing of genealogical data is far superior to the rigid-form method in most other applications. It very neatly solves the problem displaying files where you may have much information about some individuals, but very little about others. But remember, GEDitCOM is completely customizable. If you want rigid forms you can easily create them by writing your own templates. In fact, you can do a good job of having GEDitCOM mimic any other genealogy application. The real power of GEDitCOM is that you can make it better than any other genealogy application --- if not better for everyone, at least you can make it better for you.

What Format is Best?

Another problem with commercial software is you are stuck with their interface forever. In contrast, not only can you customize GEDitCOM, but you can save all your templates in a file called a GEDitCOM Format. You can swap formats at will and thus edit and view any GEDCOM file by any method you choose that day. You never have to convert the data (which can be dangerous), you only have to give GEDitCOM new instructions. You can even switch formats in the middle of viewing a file.

For example, while writing GEDitCOM. I wanted it to be able to print nice four-generation pedigree charts. I soon realized I did not actually need to hard code anything for such charts. Instead, I wrote a new set of templates called the "Pedigree Format." I simply load this format into GEDitCOM and then view any GEDCOM file directly on pedigree charts. All printing options of GEDitCOM are also customizable. The "Pedigree Format," for example, prints out nice four-generation pedigree charts while the "Default GEDitCOM Format" prints out a comprehensive list of all known information on an individual or family group.

Future Versions

I have completed version 1.0 of GEDitCOM. I think it is already one of the most powerful genealogy applications available, but I have many ideas for future enhancements. Some ideas are to have GEDCOM file manipulation options, to add more customization options in the ancestor and descendent family trees, to invent new ways to display data from GEDCOM files on the internet, and many more little ideas. By posting version 1.0 on the internet, I hope some people will use GEDitCOM and submit other ideas.

Another contribution users can make is to write GEDitCOM Formats. Maybe I did not design the best templates for editing GEDCOM files. Perhaps more clever genealogists or better artists will write a variety of templates that can customize GEDitCOM in ways I have not been able to imagine. Writing a GEDitCOM Format has much in common with designing web pages. GEDitCOM reads the templates you write and formats the GEDCOM data it finds much like your internet browser reads HTML documents and formats them for display on your computer screen. There are a growing number of web designers; perhaps some web designer/genealogist will write a nice GEDitCOM Format complete with pretty graphics. GEDitCOM Formats are saved as plain text files. It is easy to share new formats with other GEDitCOM users by email or by posting them on the internet.

If you have any questions on GEDitCOM, would like to submit suggestions for features, or are writing a GEDitCOM Format, you can contact me by email at

Copyright © 1998 by John A. Nairn. All Rights Reserved. Any republication of articles contained in the Journal requires the express consent of the author and publisher and must include notice that the work was first published in the Journal of Online Genealogy. The Journal of Online Genealogy is a trademark of Toolbox Internet Marketing Services, Inc.

Journal of Online Genealogy, Volume 3, Number 5, December 1998

Software Year in Review I | Software Year in Review II
GEDitCOM 1.0 | New Genelines Genealogy Software
GHP What's Really New | GMW Captured Stories