Friday, December 11, 2015

Dang it, Ancestry: Blood on the family group sheets

Family and local historians generally are a peaceable lot, although I've seen horrible things happen when a genealogist is crossed. But there are limits.

And there are a lot of really cross genealogists out there this week in the wake of's announcement that it plans to kill off the best and most popular genealogical software available --- Family Tree Maker.

As nearly as I've been able to ascertain, there has not been a call for border checks to keep vehicles bearing Utah plates out of Iowa (Ancestry is headquartered in Provo), but you just never know what may come next.


Ancestry is the largest for-profit genealogical company in the world, offering about two million paid subscribers easy access to approximately 16 billion historical records. I've been a subscriber since Noah was a pup, paying most recently about $300 annually for access. The basic rate is about $20 monthly. I keep getting invites to upgrade to the "full" package for about $400 a year.

Over the years, Ancestry also has acquired or launched some of the other most popular genealogical Web sites both paid and free, including Find A Grave (free) and RootsWeb (also free) --- or should we say "free" for the time being --- and, of course, Family Tree Maker, developed in the 1990s. I've used Family Tree Maker longer than I've subscribed to Ancestry.

It's a huge business, although a little obscure if you're not interested in family or local history research, and so far as I've been able to tell a very efficiently operated one. Its product of the moment is DNA-related services, trendy but so far as I'm concerned hugely over-rated.


Family Tree Maker, once you've bought and downloaded it, is based entirely on your own computer --- you own it and use the program to organize family data and generate various types of reports.  The data you enter is your own. Ancestry has offered regular upgrades.

But if you're an Ancestry subscriber, you're invited to share your family tree online via the Web site. The family tree there is synchronized to the Family Tree Maker program on your personal computer --- updates to one automatically are made to the other. It's a handy setup. But Ancestry now uses the data you and hundreds of thousands others share online as a marketing tool to sell more subscriptions. Most of us don't really mind that, however.

Many newer Ancestry subscribers maintain trees only at the Ancestry site, bypassing Family Tree Maker entirely.


What's going to happen now is that Ancestry will stop selling Family Tree Maker on Dec. 31 and after another year, on Jan. 1, 2017, will stop updating and supporting the home-computer-based program. Family Tree Maker will continue to work --- until you buy a new computer with an updated operating system that won't support it or it becomes obsolete in some other manner. But when 2016 ends, it no longer will be linked online or supported.

The net effect --- although there are strategies to avoid this and more will become evident --- is to force Family Tree Maker/Ancestry users online exclusively and to pay subscription fees in order to access and/or alter their databases.


So what to do, if you're a Family Tree Maker user who also subscribes to Well, for right now just take a few deep breaths and do absolutely nothing --- other than perhaps tell the folks at how you feel. Like any large corporation, Ancestry is conscious of its public image and enough complaints may result in some conciliatory moves.

But don't delete your family tree at Ancestry, cancel your subscription (unless you've been thinking of doing that anyway) or give your self a stroke. Everything will work exactly as it does now for another year.

On the other hand, don't expect Ancestry to either resuscitate Family Tree Maker or sell the program to another vendor. 

In the long run, if you're a smart genealogist, you will buy another home-computer-based program --- and there are plenty out there, many on sale right now in response to fury directed at The catch is, none are quite as good as Family Tree Maker has been. But you really do want to maintain control over your own data on your own computer --- even if you're perfectly willing to share it online.

It's a fairly simply matter to export your data from one program in a format known as GEDCOM and move it to another. Or to another online sharing service. RootsWeb remains free as does the LDS-based FamilySearch program.

Always back your data up regularly on a free-standing storage device and/or in the cloud. Everything is transitory, including any new software you may invest in.


As far as myself --- well, I took advantage of one of the "sales" and invested at bargain-basement prices in another home-computer-based program. I'm not ready to make any recommendations, however --- they're all going to seem a little clumsy after Family Tree Maker.

But I lost my nearly obsolete Family Tree Maker program earlier this year when I upgraded to a new computer with a new operating system and had not invested in the upgraded version. I do far more local history research these days than family history, so was in no hurry.

I plan to keep my Ancestry membership --- as a research tool, it's hard to beat in many instances.

But I'm not entirely sure I'll keep updating manually the family tree that goes along with the subscription. Ancestry loves to redesign stuff, and the current family tree interface is flashy, but clumsy and a challenge to use when not synchronized to my PC-based program.

That may change, however, since Ancestry is expected to integrate many of the great features now available only on Family Tree Maker into its online program. We'll just have to wait and see about that.

If you do not use extensively, remember that access to the site remains available free of charge at many public libraries and at LDS Family History Centers.

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