Wednesday, March 16, 2005

When Old Software Is Best - Sidekick 98 and Phillipe Borland

I am one of those people who gets classified as an "early adopter". I have an enduring optimism that things get better over time, and that the next great thing is just about to be discovered. I love the thrill of getting a new toy, figuring out how it works, and then spreading the news.

Hard experience would indicate that this optimisim is not well founded however. Gartner has what they call the hype-cycle, the various phases that people go through when evaluating technology and its potential impact. I can simplify this into two phases - anticipation and reality.

Anticipation is wonderful because it is unconstrained by reality. All desires are satisfied. All features work. Nirvana is at hand.

Reality, as some others have observed, is a bitch.

Which brings me to software. Microsoft's Borg-like domination of the planet has extinguished innovation in the core areas of word processing, spreadsheets, personal data bases, and email. Yes, there are still efforts going on, but the look and feel seems to have been locked in concrete, with most competitors releasing "me-too" products rather than real innovation.

The Open Office folks are doing a great job of providing an open source Office suite, but the goal seems to be duplication, rather than extension.
You do not have any tools at hand for managing and moving lists, unless you are managing names and addresses in Outlook.

Shortly after I took delivery of my first IBM PC in 1984, I came across a marvellous program called Sidekick from a company called Borland. This magic piece of code was the first commercial use of something called a TSR or terminate and stay resident program. Running on DOS, the program would pop up when a key combination was pressed, providing an editor (with WordStar keys), a calendar, and most importantly, a little flat file database.

I can't describe how powerful it was to have all those capabilities at the touch of a key. Instead of having to insert a floppy and wait for the program to load, Sidekick was memory resident. The ability to quickly and easily create a database and then export in .dbf or .csv or pretty much any format was something I took for granted.

Windows came along, and the very thing that made Sidekick cool (TSR) became a liability. Borland the company was going through changes as well, getting broken up and sold in pieces. Eventually, Phillipe Borland started a new company called Starfish which was dedicated to reducing bloatware and writing software that was small and functional.

Starfish came out with a Windows version of Sidekick that had all the original features, plus the ability to synchronize across the Internet. The best version of this software became Sidekick 98. Subsequent versions were released, but they were actually worse. I was really happy that Sidekick was back, and used it to create contact lists, account and password lists, CD and vinyl lists, DVD lists, you name it. I didn't really care about the collaboration features.

Flash forward to today. Starfish got bought by Motorola during one of their periodic "software vs. hardware" moments of doubt. Getting bought by Motorola is usually the kiss of death for a team, which rarely survives Motorola's "special" corporate culture. Indeed, all traces of Starfish disappeared. The web site hung around for a while, but then in April 2003, it started pointing to Pumatech, the people who were selling the Intellisync product. Pumatech has since changed their name to Intellisync, and appears to be concentrating on selling to enterprises and carriers for phone and PDA synchronization.

A new PC user will inevitably conclude that his only choice for managing data is Outlook, since that seems to be the only program with which vendors concentrate on synchronizing. Unfortunately, Outlook is a primary example of bloat-ware, with rigid formats (you cannot define your own fields), and endless menus and options. Ugh. Add to all that the fact that people like Palm didn't even include a proper database with their device, and you find yourself in the wilderness when it comes to managing anything other than names and addresses.

Anyway... what this is all in aid of is the fact that Sidekick 98 is still the easiest and most flexible piece of software out there for managing information on the fly, and for formatting it to move between different programs and devices. I have been able to take data originally entered on an Osbourne 1 running dBASE II under CPM, and move it to DOS, various laptops, Windows, Psion PDA's, and most recently, a shiny new Nokia Communicator 9500.

I am happy to report that Sidekick 98 runs fine under Windows XP, a testament to Phillipe Borland's design goal of simplicity and usability. I just wish he was still making great software.

Update: September 26, 2023

So we are 25 years past the release date of Sidekick 98, and the old girl is still running.  I haven't been blogging for quite a while (life) but I still use Sidekick 98 and have managed to get it running on Windows 7, Windows 10, and now Windows 11.  

There still isn't anything out there that comes close.  It is particularly noticeable for those who grew up with dBase II that there doesn't seem to be much/any software for individuals to organize data privately and personally without being on a cloud-based system.

Long live Sidekick 98!


Anonymous said...

I agree 100%! Starfish Sidekick is a phenomenal program. No other PIM software has its flexibility or simplicity. It's a shame that this program is no longer supported. I've used SDK since '96 and still use it (Sidekick 98) to this day. Unfortunately the program looses its ability to properly track the Due Data on To Do items after 12/31/2005 so I'm afraid I may have to move to another PIM! :(

-BobSchenot said...

I've been using Sidekick '97 since '97.

Just bought a Win 7 computer.

Looks like Microsoft has finally killed Sidekick -- can't find a way to get it to run under Win 7 (compatability -- BAH!).

I'm intrigued by your comment about moving the data. I've found no way to get my data out of Sidekick so that I can use it in another program...

If anyone's been able to get Sidekick '97 to work under Win 7, I'm interested.

Looks to me like it's finally time to pack it in, but I can't find an alternative, nor can I see a way to rescue the last 12 years of my life (sigh)

whanafi said...

Getting Sidekick '97 to work on Windows 7 was actually my first test back when the beta was released. It actually installed instantly, and doesn't even have the annoying "hang" when starting up that I get under XP.

I am running Windows 7 Pro 64bit, and did not use compatibility mode, just ran the original installer.

-BobSchenot said...

I'm running Windows 7 Home Premium. I tried to install from the original Sidekick '97 install CD.

When I run d:\disk1\setup.exe (D is my DVD RW drive), I get the message "This version of this file is not compatible with the version of Windows you're running .... etc" and then they want me to contact the publisher ...

As I said, I used every available compatibility setting back to Win 95. The system itself suggests xp sp2, which is what I was running it under.

Based on other comments I've seen, I also copied the directories to my C: drive, with the same result.

From this, can you tell me what the difference is? Can it be that Pro will run it & home premium won't?


whanafi said...

I long ago transferred the Sidekick install files to a single zip, which has the original floppy disk hierarchy of Disk 1, Disk 2 and so on.

I copy the file to the target hard disk, then go to Disk 1, and run setup. Never had a problem.

There were patches issued during the life of Sidekick '97 that need to be applied BTW - one replaces the SK.exe file, and one replaces a .dll. Am travelling so don't have it in front of me.

Would be surprised if different flavours of Windows are the problem. I have installed it on Windows XP Home which runs on a netbook, and have installed it in multiple flavours of Windows running in virtual machines I use.

You also mentioned getting the data out - Sidekick supports exporting extremely well - you can write to everything from dBase to Excel to .csv - your data should not be trapped.

I only use it for Contact (database) files, so not sure about Calendars, but I believe there is export for that as well.

Good Luck!

whanafi said...

I just realized after all this commenting that you have Sidekick '97 and I have Sidekick '98.

That probably answers the question right there. There are sites that have the old Sidekick '98 files for download - I would make the move.

Unknown said...

I agree that Sidekick '98 is awesome. I've yet to find a simple program that will let me schedule & log phone calls. I've been using SK since the days of DOS. I just switched to a Mac. Does anyone know of a program similar to SK?

Richard Sherman said...

Ok, it's 6/10 and I'm also still running Sidekick 98. The integration of calendar, memos, tasks, and contacts is still better than anything else I've found. I just wish it would sync with Google Calendar or with Ipod Touch.

I was glad to get the tips about installing on Windows 7 -- I'm running it on XP and on Vista right now but sooner or later I know I will have to move to W7.

Thanks Borland.......

trs said...

I have used all the Sidekicks, and you are right the Sidekick 98 version is by far the best. Unfortunately the 64bit world is upon us, and what is one to do? Any suggestions on a replacement for Sidekick 98?

whanafi said...

I have Sidekick 98 running under Windows 7 Pro 64 bit. The trick is to install it with XP compatibility mode, and then it all works.

If you install it without compatibility, it appears to work, but doesn't actually save any new records, and occasionally corrupts the display.

SK 98 survives another OS migration...

Unknown said...

Hello all,

seeing the comments, no one has realized there is a difference, as announced by microsoft.

Window 7 Home edition do not run legacy software. Microsoft said only Window 7 Professional and higher will run legacy software. Sidekick 98 is considered legacy software due to origins of design (runs under window 95 and 98.

Yes as stated earlier, configure to run 98 under compatability mode (in pro version).

I am hoping that Microsoft relent and release something (such as update/special program) enabling home versions to handle legacy software (ah will not hold my breath)

Unknown said...

Hi all, I am a die hard SK98 user. Nothing compares, I use almost all the components including webpublishing of the calendar. I haven't tried to publish from win 7 tho. It is working as a pim on my windows 7 home. I can't remember what I did to get it to load. I to have the 6 disks. I however, am having problem with the calendar and the mast:wk error. I have looked everywhere for the patch. Anyone know where to find it? P.s I run SK98 on xp pro, vista and win7 home. I heard it will run on wine (ubuntu) but I couldn't spend the time getting it to work. Mick


I have been using Sidekick since 1996 and just can't let it go, it is so powerful yet simple and user friendly.

I use sidekick for internet which was the last version before it was withdrawn.

I convert sidekick files from .crd to .dbf or .txt and then import into excel and vice versa.

If sidekick was directly compatible with the rest of the world, I would never use Microsoft outlook. But Alas!!!

I will keep my sidekick till I die.

Augusto M. said...

I am one of the die-hard user of Sidekick 98 (after Sidekick 95). I replacd sidekick.exe and yintl.dll with a new version I found in the net.Under Win XP it worked with some problem with due date a.s.o., Installed on a Win 7 Home Premium 64, worked, but today it opens, but has frozen. Task manager says "it does not respond" (translated from Italian). Yesterday OK, today KO. Someone could help me? Luckily I have a netbook with Win XP, so I can work,but this is not a solution. As M said:I will keep my sidekick till I die.

Unknown said...

I've been using and still use Sidekick 98, since 1998 (currently on Win7PRO). Best program and easy to back up and transfer contacts. I've got almost 15 years of contacts and business transactions all stored in the user data, with new information and transaction still being added daily. "Legacy all the way!!!!"

toms said...

I couldn't agree more. I'll keep tuned to this blog for any info about running Sidekick98 with Windows 8!!!!

Unknown said...

I have been installing Sidekick 98 from the sk98.exe file, but it won't work on my new Windows 8 machine. I would like to try the installation using the Disk 1 etc files. Can anyone tell me how to obtain them?

Shantamonica said...

I am a die-hard Mac user but I still keep an old dinosaur of a Dell laptop around (it's like picking up a brick!) for the sole purpose of using Sidekick 98. It is the only program I have ever found that gives me an operational year view so that I can quickly schedule my year calendar at a glance AND print it out. I basically do this once a year when I have to plot out my year in advance. My intention has been to run Parallels or some-such program to install Windows and run it off my Mac. Has anyone done that? I cannot believe that some software developer hasn't jumped on this project and filled the gaping hole left by Sidekick. Thanks for all of this info.

whanafi said...

I have installed SK98 under Parallels and Win XP on a MAC without problems. I just can't get used to MAC OS, and so have not bothered recently to run a MAC with Win7.

2013 and SK98 is still going strong!

Unknown said...

You could try a new PIM: callij (IJ) be a flexible PIM based on unstructured data paradigm.

Honkybear said...

I whole heartedly agree. That Sidekick is a wonderful product. I also run it under Windows XP. These days I think I maybe being forced to upgrade to Windows 7. But like some computer techs I'm reluctant and happy with XP and my Starfish Sidekick.

whanafi said...

The good news is that Sidekick 98 runs fine on Windows 7 Pro 64bit. Just make sure to use compatibility mode after installing and select XP SP3, and check the Admin rights tick box.

Honkybear said...

Awesome :-)

Honkybear said...


Unknown said...

Sidekick is the most awesome program. Been using it since the early 90's when it was a memory resident program. I am now stuck with the same problem all are facing even though I use sk98 in WIN 7 home edition. Sometimes it loads and other times it does not, but just hangs . Other times it suddenly loads after being hung for a long time. I have given it admin rights, made it win32 compatible and told my virus Mcafee software to allow it to run. Any suggestions welcome.

whanafi said...

I have found that Outlook really messes with SK98, and that I have to make sure to start SideKick before any MS Office programs. On my current Win 7 64 Pro, I have to wait until everything in the startup folder runs before I can get SK to start.

When you installed SK, did you try and use the email integration? I find that it is better not to accept that choice as well.

Unknown said...

I have been using Sidekick95 since 1995 and it still works even in Windows 10. I did find out that if you need to reload at anytime, right click on the "install.exe" file and then run as "Administrator". I found that this works every time, if you just double click on the install.exe file, it runs very strange.
This was just an FYI

WindsurferLA said...

Like so many others, SideKick has been my prime contact manager for nearly 30 years; it current runs w/o glitches under Win7 professional 64. Google's Contacts works but sidekick gets me what I need more quickly than Googles Contacts. That said, the fact is that Google has stopped support of Win7, and it is time to start working on replacing SideKick. With diligence, I can probably get it to run on my Win10 machines, but Win10 is already headed for the grave yard.

Right now I looking to see if Thunderbird's Address Book can be a substitute. Hints on how to export the Sidekick's contact log notes will be appreciated.