Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic!  Part 12: Growth and New Products

NOTE: This is Part 12 of our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 12345678910, and 11.

Once RootsMagic 4 and RootsMagic Essentials were out the door, we tried to concentrate on upgrading the software and adding new functionality.  But we were hearing from our users that they wanted to be able to take their data on their new tablets they’d gotten for Christmas. The only problem was that we had no programming skills on tablets, either iOS or Android.

Rather than hire new programmers just to write apps, we decided to outsource them.  We got a bunch of bids from companies all over the world, but finally ended up selecting a local company here in Utah.  We knew that genealogy software is actually very complex, and this company was actually already familiar with RootsMagic and genealogy software in general.

If you’ve ever hired out programming, you know it can get very expensive.  And we were faced with the decision how to recover the costs of creating these new apps.  In the end, we decided to leave them as read-only to keep our costs down, and to make them available for free.  We released our iOS app in Dec 2012, and didn’t know it would take another year of development before we could get the Android version out.


Back when we released RootsMagic 4 we assumed we’d never have to rewrite the program again.  But as we got more and more requests for a Mac version it became clear that we might get to do just that.

We knew there were a couple of options… write a separate Mac version (or have another company write a Mac version for us), or rewrite the program so that we could compile the same program to both Windows and Mac.  We’ve seen too many programs where their Windows and Mac versions are quite a bit different (both interface and functionality), so we really didn’t like the first option. The second option would ensure that both Windows and Mac users would always have the same functionality, yet redesigning the program again seemed daunting.

So in the summer of 2014 we began rebuilding RootsMagic so that we could compile natively to both Windows and Mac.  But having done this multiple times, I knew firsthand how long it could take, and the Mac users were getting more and more vocal.  So as a temporary fix, we contacted a company called Codeweavers that wrote software to let Windows programs run on a Mac. We had them build a custom wrapper for RootsMagic, and in September 2014 we released MacBridge.

Since we had to pay Codeweavers for every copy of MacBridge we distributed, we sold it as a separate program so we could keep track of the numbers.  The MacBridge program allowed you to install the Windows version on your Mac, but the process was somewhat unwieldy, and it was hard to explain to users how it was supposed to work.

We decided we needed to simplify this whole Mac “wrapper” thing, and worked out a license with Codeweavers where we could pay a flat amount every month and be able to distribute unlimited copies.  This not only allowed us to create a “RootsMagic for Mac” standalone installer, but also meant we could distribute free RootsMagic Essentials with the wrapper as well. And yes, we continue to eat the cost of that monthly license to this day 😉

While we continued to work on the new Mac/Windows version, we decided to release a new version of RootsMagic based on the older code with some exciting features we had been working on.  RootsMagic 7 included a new feature called WebHints, which would display hints from FamilySearch, MyHeritage, and FindMyPast, and let you click on a little lightbulb to jump to those sites to see the hints.  We also announced MyRootsMagic, where registered users could easily post free websites of their family tree.

Then in December 2015, Ancestry dropped a bombshell that they were discontinuing their Family Tree Maker program.  About this same time they contacted us and asked if we were interested in working with their API and integrating RootsMagic with Ancestry.  Of course we jumped at the opportunity. I had been asking Ancestry to work with their API for years without any luck, so this came as a very pleasant surprise.  After crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s, we jointly announced that we would be working together on February 2, 2016.

We optimistically guessed that the new Ancestry features would be done by the end of 2016, but we underestimated the complexity that lay before us.  And as we began work on the integration, we noticed that our RootsMagic 7 sales were dropping. We realized that users were holding off buying RootsMagic until the Ancestry features were released, so we announced that the Ancestry features would be a free update to version 7.  Sales immediately picked back up, but we realized this meant that RootsMagic 8 which we were working on separately would have to be put on the back burner until the Ancestry integration was done.

We tried to be as transparent as possible about progress on the Ancestry features.  Normally we wouldn’t pre-announce a new feature, but in this case Ancestry wanted it to be known that we were working on this functionality.  So it left us open to a lot of second-guessing by users as the development went past our estimated release.

During the latter part of development, I started growing a beard and started joking that I wasn’t going to shave until the Ancestry features were released.  Finally, on June 28, 2017, we announced to the world in a short live video from our “secret underground laboratories” that it was finally here.  It was kind of a ridiculous video, but was also kind of an emotional release from all the hard work we put into those features.

After releasing the Ancestry integration it was tempting to just take some time off, but we knew we needed to get back to work on RootsMagic 8 since it had been pushed to the back burner for a year and a half.  We also knew that we needed to release an update to our Personal Historian software which we had been working on prior to the Ancestry announcement.  The update was already close to ready, but we hit a little snag with the main new feature, importing from Facebook.  In order to import from Facebook, we were required to submit the program to Facebook.  Normally that would have been a simple procedure, but Facebook was in the news for allowing companies to take users data and use it in ways the user didn’t want.  Facebook cracked down on accepting new developers with products that could read data from Facebook.  We were finally able to get approved since we were able to show that we (RootsMagic) didn’t get the data ourselves; that the data was simply downloaded onto the users own computer.  At first we were concerned about releasing an update that read from Facebook, but then we realized we actually were providing a feature that Facebook users needed… the ability to get a copy of all of their data downloaded onto their own computer.  Personal Historian 3 was released in March 2018.

So where are we today?  And what does the future hold for RootsMagic?  When we started this blog years ago, the main purpose was to give a sneak preview of our soon to be released RootsMagic 4, and for the next little while we’re going back to those roots to give you a peek at RootsMagic 8.

Of course everyone wants to know what new features will be in version 8 (we all like new features).  And while we’ll have new features, let me just say that  RootsMagic 8 is being designed with our current users in mind, simplifying existing functionality, reducing “clickiness”, and other improvements requested by users.  Underlying code is being redesigned to provide us with a framework for additional functionality in the years to come.

So stayed tuned to this blog as we begin to unveil the most exciting version of RootsMagic ever.

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 11: Rewriting RootsMagic

NOTE: This is Part 11 of our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 123456789, and 10.

As 2007 rolled around, we began talking about rewriting RootsMagic from scratch. We were still using the same old dBase file format we started using in Family Origins over 10 years earlier. Among other problems, it didn’t support Unicode (which meant it couldn’t handle special characters like Cyrillic and others), and each RootsMagic database contained over 30 different files, which users didn’t always keep together properly. We also wanted to add some new functionality which we couldn’t just squeeze into the existing code. Once the dust had settled, we had not only chosen a new database format, we also changed the programming language we were going to use.

As we began work on the rewrite, the first thing we realized was we weren’t just rewriting our own code, we were having to find replacement libraries for all the behind the scenes things as well. We had to find new libraries to handle spell checking, zipping files, image manipulation and a dozen other functions, and had to rewrite several other libraries ourselves. It was turning out to be a much bigger project than we originally planned for.

Adding to the work, we were approached by FamilySearch during this time about a new system they wanted us to support. They were calling it “New FamilySearch”, and it was in the early stages of development. It was good timing for us since we were redesigning everything anyways, but it was trickier from a marketing standpoint. Everybody wanted to see our new FamilySearch features, even though we hadn’t even released the new version yet. We began demonstrating the FamilySearch features at genealogy conferences, but keeping the main part of the program basically hidden. I still find it funny that we ended up winning two FamilySearch awards (“Easiest to Sync” and “Best Dashboard”) two weeks before we officially released the program.

bruce and mike 2

Over the next year and a half we worked on RootsMagic 4 in secret. As time went by without us releasing a “new version” some customers began to worry that we had “abandoned” the program, even posting those thoughts on our forums and mail lists. We didn’t want our competitors to know we were doing a rewrite, so we slowly leaked info that version 4 was in the works. But it wasn’t until July 5, 2008 that we started spilling the beans. On that day we started a new blog, and began writing “insider” articles about the new features coming in RootsMagic 4.


We knew we were still months away from being able to release the program, but we also knew we had tons of new features to write about. We started with the smallest new features, and worked up to the major new features. We blogged through the development, community preview, beta test, and release of the program. Little did we realize when we started the blog that it would be over 8 months of blogging before we actually released the new version.

RootsMagic 4 Insider

Finally, on March 25, 2009, we officially released RootsMagic 4. It felt like such a relief to finally get it out the door. But the first 6 months were a rocky road, as bugs were getting reported faster than we could fix them. Apparently having 2000 users testing the program during our community preview, and even more during our public beta wasn’t enough to find all the bugs. Mike and I worked around the clock trying to fix bugs, but users were getting angry that we weren’t fixing them fast enough. There were more than a few times that Mike and I wondered aloud if it had been worth doing the rewrite.

We kept plugging away fixing bugs and things began to settle down. Sales were great, but we knew there had to be a way to reach even more people. I began to think about my old shareware days, and wondered whether something along those lines might work. Since the old Family Origins days we had provided a demo version of our software. The demo version had all the features, except that it would only hold 50 people. I had always hated that 50 person limitation, but figured that was how demos worked.

Mike and I talked about getting rid of the demo, and instead offering a free “lite” version of the program, one which had all the “essential” features necessary for a genealogy program. But our main criteria was that it use the same file format as the full program. We had a lot of customers who wanted to share their database with a family member, but didn’t want to have to buy another copy of the program to do that. We made a list of RootsMagic’s features, and then painstakingly went through each one to decide whether that feature was essential to tracking your family history. Some items on the list were easy… people, notes, sources, pictures, pedigree charts and family group sheets were all essential to a good family history. Some were not so easy… is it essential to be able to create wall charts of your family?

RootsMagic Essentials

Finally, on November 18, 2009, we released (what else?) RootsMagic Essentials. While we were excited about this new direction, we were also nervous about whether offering a fully functional free version of our software would eat into our sales, or whether the added exposure would make up for it. We were so worried we even made sure we had the ability to switch back to the limited demo version if things got too bad. Luckily that wasn’t necessary, as RootsMagic Essentials became one of the best ideas we ever had.

Next: Growth and New Products

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 10: The New Partnership

NOTE: This is Part 10 of our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

After Jamboree, Michael Booth and I began to work together on new graphics for the RootsMagic 3 I was finishing up.  Although it was just a small thing, it made a big difference in the look of the screens.  The more we worked together the more I realized how talented Mike was and how much I enjoyed working with him.  I told my wife that I would love to have Mike join RootsMagic, but that it was also kind of scary.  Up until now, RootsMagic was simply a family business that only had to support our family.  Our only official employee was my daughter Kristy who handled all the shipping.  I did all the programming, tech support, and marketing (if you could really call it that).

Bruce and Mike

In late May 2005 I finally got up the courage to call Mike and ask if he and his wife would meet with me and my wife for lunch.  I didn’t really tell him what it was about because I wanted to ask him personally.  I still remember the butterflies in my stomach, and thinking I wasn’t much of a business person if I was this nervous about bringing up this subject with Mike.  I hemmed and hawed and finally asked if he would ever consider joining RootsMagic as our Vice President and bring his Personal Historian software along for the ride.

I didn’t expect Mike to make a decision right there (and he didn’t).  But over the course of the next month we discussed and negotiated all kinds of things.  It was a very friendly negotiation, but at one point it looked like it wasn’t going to happen.  It wasn’t really over anything tangible… it was mainly just a question of whether it was really right for Mike and his family.  I was in a funk, but it didn’t feel like there was anything I could do about it.  I decided to respect his decision, but I did try to subtly (or maybe not so subtly) point out what great synergy our two products and companies would have together.

Personal Historian 1

We finally set it up so that if things didn’t work out the way we planned, Mike and I could take our products (and companies) and go our own ways.  And on July 1, 2005, Michael Booth joined RootsMagic as Vice President, and we added Personal Historian to our product line.  At our first genealogy conference after joining forces (the BYU fall genealogy conference), we made less money combined than we each made individually the year before.  We joked about how well this “synergy” thing was working for us, and at that point I knew we were going to make this work.

The first thing Mike did was help me bring RootsMagic into the 21st century.  Up until then, RootsMagic had only been available on CD, and Mike decided we needed to make it available as a download also.  While I finished up version 3, Mike wrote the code that allowed us to make it downloadable for the first time.

Once we released RootsMagic 3, Mike began work on our next project.  It was a mapping program designed to read genealogy data and plot it on a world based map.  Back when I was working with Parsons Technology, I had helped them develop a genealogy mapping program called Family Atlas (I wrote the code for reading GEDCOM files into it).  That program was long gone, and I had been wanting to create a new program that took genealogy mapping to the next level.  The first thing I did was check if the “Family Atlas” name was available again.  Luckily it was, although we had to pay a pretty good price to get the domain name.

Family Atlas

As we got closer to releasing Family Atlas we began doing some demonstration classes at conferences, and discovered that what we were offering was only half of what users really wanted.  We had the ability to import and manipulate genealogy data geographically, but users also wanted to be able to publish maps with those results.  We went back to the drawing board, added a publishing feature, and in October 2006 we released Family Atlas.

And then we began the longest and most difficult programming project in our company history.

Next: A total rewrite

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 9: The Collector’s Item


NOTE: This is Part 9 of our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.

When we finally released RootsMagic 1.0, the book I had written for it was still a month or so away from coming back from the printer.  I had wanted to have it ready at the same time as the program, but there was still some editing to do, and I hadn’t designed a cover for the book yet.  I finally took the artwork for my Family Origins cover to help with the layout and modified the graphics and text.

The books arrived from the printer the day before I left for the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree at the end of February 2003.  This was the last Jamboree held at the Pasadena Convention Center.  I just loaded the books and software into the car without even really taking a look at them.  The first day of Jamboree, a customer brought the book they just bought back and asked me to take a look at it.

2014-10-02 13.13.55

When I didn’t find any damage to the book, I asked what the problem was.  They pointed to the spine… “Getting the Most Out of Family Origins.”  My heart sank.  I knew we had 5000 books exactly like that sitting in my garage, and couldn’t possibly afford to reprint all of them.  The customer wasn’t upset, and even made a comment about it being a collector’s item.  I made sure to make a note of that comment.

I called my wife to tell her about the book spine, and she said she already knew about it.  She just didn’t tell me because she didn’t want me to be upset.  When I got online that evening, I saw a big discussion about the incorrectly printed book spine.  I mentioned that when we reprinted the book, we would be correcting it and that this book was now a collector’s item.  After saying that, sales of the book picked up drastically.  We even had customers say they never needed or bought the book for Family Origins, but they were buying this one specifically because of the incorrect spine.  I still have users come up to me at conferences and tell me they have a copy of that particular book.

As sales grew, we realized how few people actually knew our company’s name.  Family Origins was known as a Parsons Technology product.  Very few people ever noticed that it said FormalSoft owned and developed the program, and that it was licensed to Parsons.  When we would answer the phones with “Thank you for calling FormalSoft, how may I help you?”, We would be greeted almost every time with “Is this RootsMagic?”.  Finally, we made one of the hardest decisions a company ever has to make.  On March 1, 2004, we issued this press release:

FormalSoft, Inc. Changes Name to RootsMagic, Inc.

SPRINGVILLE, Utah, March 1, 2004 – FormalSoft, Inc. announced today that, effective immediately, the company is changing its name to RootsMagic, Inc. 

“The name change to RootsMagic, Inc. reflects our commitment to the RootsMagic product line and to the family history market” said Bruce Buzbee, founder and president of RootsMagic, Inc.

“In addition, the overwhelming success of our RootsMagic genealogy software in just its first year has overshadowed the company name recognition built during all the years we licensed Family Origins to other publishers.”

Coinciding with the name change is the switch to www.rootsmagic.com as the official company website.

I guess I really did say that quote above, but the reality is that nobody knew us as FormalSoft, and it was just going to keep getting worse.


To get RootsMagic released in a timely manner, we had to leave out one important feature… wall charts.  I had already been working on them but knew it would delay the release another 6-8 months if we tried to include them in version 1.  In May 2004, we released RootsMagic 2, and with it the new wall chart functionality.  Around this same time, we started selling software from other companies, programs like Passage Express, AniMap, GenSmarts, and a relatively new program called Personal Historian.  We would buy copies of each of the programs, and then resell them on our website along with our own RootsMagic software.  I got to know and become friends with the developers of each of these products.

In May 2005, the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree moved to its new location at the Marriott convention center in Burbank, California, and we were there to exhibit as usual.  Unfortunately for the Jamboree, the move took its toll on attendance that year, and most of our time was spent talking to the other vendors rather than with users or customers.  But what was a negative for the Jamboree led to the most important development in our company’s history.

With nothing better to do that talk with other vendors, I spent a lot of time visiting with Michael Booth, the developer of the Personal Historian software we had been reselling.  I really liked the appearance of his screens, especially compared to the bland screens and graphics in RootsMagic 2.  I found that Mike created most of his own graphics and toolbar buttons, so I asked him if he would be interested in designing new graphics and toolbar buttons for the RootsMagic 3 I was working on.  I offered to pay him, but he still claims to this day that he offered to do it because he was sick of looking at RootsMagic’s ugly screens.

While Mike made good on his offer to do some new graphics, this was only the beginning of the biggest (and best) decision I ever made for the company.

NEXT: New Partners & Products

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 8: The Birth of RootsMagic


NOTE: This is Part 8 of our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.

Shortly after I finished writing Family Origins 10, I realized that A&E wasn’t really doing anything to promote the program.  When I would get my royalty check, it was obvious that the copies I was buying and reselling greatly outnumbered the copies they were selling directly to customers.  Royalty payments were dwindling, and it was getting tougher to make ends meet.  The company just wasn’t making enough to keep our family going.  I even went out and applied for some other jobs to try and help out, but the one that was a perfect fit said I was “overqualified”.

I decided to write another program to help supplement our income.  Rather than write another family tree program, I decided to write a program to help users organize their records: documents, certificates, photographs, addresses, etc.  But rather than just storing information about these records, any record could be “linked” with any other record.  It was a very powerful idea, with a very confusing interface, and when I brought in some early testers, I realized that this would be a tough sell.  I spent a lot of time trying to explain my thinking behind the program and realized that if I had to explain this much to my testers, there was no way I was going to make this understandable to the general market.

The further we got into the testing, the more discouraged I became.  I knew that even if I released this new program, we could never sell enough copies to be worth it.  But I didn’t want to waste my time writing another Family Origins upgrade since I knew it wouldn’t get marketed as it deserved.  Then one day as I was looking through my contract trying to figure out a way to get Family Origins back, I realized that the one thing the contract didn’t include was a non-compete clause.  The contract did require me to license any upgrade to the Family Origins program to them, but didn’t prohibit me from writing a totally new genealogy program.

A lawyer friend advised me that while I could do this, I needed to make sure there was no connection between Family Origins and this new program.  So I unplugged my computer with all my source code, bought a new computer, and started writing a new genealogy program completely from scratch.  I knew this was a daunting task, and would probably take a couple of years to finish, but I felt energized by the decision.  I plowed into my programming, determined to make this new program even better than Family Origins.  I wanted it to have a similar look and feel to Family Origins since I knew its best chance for success was if I could switch over all those existing Family Origins users.

I kept this decision a secret from all but my family.  A couple of years after we released Family Origins 10, A&E called and asked me to do a version 11 upgrade.  I declined, saying that I didn’t want to spend that much time on a program I knew they wouldn’t promote.  They suggested I make a few minor enhancements, and they could call that version 11, but that just made me madder.

As I continued to work on the new program, I found the hardest part was coming up with a new name.  I wanted a name that would be memorable, but more importantly, the .com domain name needed to be available.  My first stipulation was that I didn’t want the word “family” in the name since most of the existing genealogy programs had family in the name, and I wanted something more unique.

When I asked my family for suggestions, I realized that while teenagers weren’t that helpful with real names, they were great for gag names.  Their suggestions included “Frankancestor”, “Genealogy Blaster”, and “PediFile”.  I almost bit on that last one until I said it out loud.  As we came up with names that I might consider, I registered the domain name just in case.  At one point I probably had 10 or 12 domain names registered, but finally decided on “RootsMate”.

In May 2002, we unveiled RootsMate at the NGS conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The program was still in development, but I wanted to start getting the word out.  Dick Eastman wrote about RootsMate in the May 20, 2002, issue of his blog.


As the year progressed, so did the program and testing.  Then in September, one of our Australian testers casually asked how committed we were to the name “RootsMate”.  When he explained why he was asking, I emailed another of our Australian testers and asked him his thoughts on the name.  He responded, “Well, I wasn’t going to say anything, but when my wife saw the name at the top of the beta website, she asked what kind of website I was visiting”.  I asked whether the problem was the word “root” itself, or just in combination with “mate”.  As an example, I said what if “root” was used with a different word, like “magic”.  To this day I don’t know why I used the word “magic” other than it started with the same 2 letters.  He not only said it would work ok, but that he really liked the name RootsMagic.  When I ran it past our other testers and my family, they all agreed.

And despite all the work and votes our testers went through, my announcement was nothing more than a reply to another post on the ROOTSMATE users list.  I guess I didn’t feel it was a big enough decision to warrant its own post.


My plan had been to release RootsMagic in time for the holiday season since we were completely out of money and our credit cards were maxed out.  Family Origins users were hounding us wanting to get RootsMagic for Christmas, but we had to tell them it wouldn’t be ready until January.  This was bad news all around… they wanted it now, and we needed the income to keep the company alive.  Then “Charlie” (a long time Family Origins and RootsMagic user) made the suggestion that solved all our problems.


So in late November we started selling gift certificates, redeemable for a copy of RootsMagic when it was released.  On January 31st, our CDs were delivered, but of course, that was a Friday at 5 pm.  We spent the weekend packaging orders, and on Monday, February 3rd, 2003, we shipped the first RootsMagic orders.  Since we had the addresses of everyone that had ordered a certificate, we sent out the orders without requiring them to return the certificate. NOTE: if any of those original users still has a copy of that certificate laying around, I would LOVE to get a scanned copy of it to add to this history.

The day we announced the release of RootsMagic, I received a telephone call from A&E, who still had the rights to our Family Origins.  After congratulating us on the release, they asked if I knew that our contract gave them the rights to our RootsMagic program as well.  I pointed out that RootsMagic was written entirely from scratch, and that if they wanted to pursue that, they better make sure their lawyers looked over that contract with a fine tooth comb first.  Apparently, their lawyers saw the same thing mine did, because I never heard from them again on the subject.

While finally getting RootsMagic out the door was a reason to celebrate, it was also a little scary.  Our little company was now back in the software publishing business, and the need to do sales, marketing and support were once again our responsibility.

NEXT: A Publishing Error

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 7: Missed Opportunities and Murky Waters


NOTE: This is Part 7 of our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

During the first few years that we licensed Family Origins to Parsons Technology, I built up some good friendships and a solid relationship.  Parsons did a great job of promoting and supporting Family Origins, and I was able to concentrate solely on making it better.

In 1993 I had the opportunity to visit a local company called Automated Archives, which created CDs with genealogy data on them.  They talked about acquiring a genealogy program and asked if I thought they could buy Family Origins.  Since our license with Parsons was exclusive, I told them they would need to talk to Parsons.  But I pointed out that Parsons was a much bigger company than them, and it would be easier for Parsons to buy Automated Archives than vice versa.  I was surprised when they asked if I thought Parsons would be interested in doing that.

I tried to convince Parsons to buy Automated Archives until I was blue in the face, but it was to no avail.  They apparently felt like selling genealogy data on CDs wasn’t a money maker.  After Banner Blue bought Automated Archives the next year and started successfully bundling those same data CDs with Family Tree Maker, some of the Parsons higher ups wondered out loud why nobody had brought this to their attention.  Needless to say, they were probably lucky that I lived over a thousand miles from their headquarters.

1994 brought the first of many mergers and acquisitions.  Intuit (the makers of Quicken) had just gone public and acquired TurboTax to add to their portfolio, so it was a bit of a surprise when they also acquired Parsons.  Many Parsons employees thought it was so that Intuit could kill off Parsons’ competing accounting and tax programs.  But Intuit claimed they were going to allow Parsons to act as a subsidiary and continue to do business as usual.  Although the marketing of Family Origins was Parsons’ job, I worked hard to try and convince Parsons to add “From the makers of Quicken” on the Family Origins ads and packaging, but the closest I could get was “Parsons Technology: An Intuit Company”.


But Intuit was true to their word and not much changed… until the bombshell on May 29, 1997.

I received a call at home from my contact at Parsons.  She sounded worried and told me that Intuit had just sold Parsons to Broderbund.  She had no other details, but the one thing we did know is that Broderbund owned Banner Blue, the makers of Family Tree Maker.  We had just been acquired by our main competitor.


The next few years brought a string of acquisitions, each one bringing more uncertainty about the future of Family Origins.  In 1998, Broderbund was acquired by The Learning Company.  The next year The Learning Company was acquired by Mattel.  Yep, Family Origins was now cousins with Barbie and Hot Wheels.  Every time another company took over, they focused more and more on Family Tree Maker, and less and less on Family Origins.

Finally, in late 1999, Mattel spun off the genealogy products in a partnership with A&E Television networks and several others to create a new company called Genealogy.com.  This new company concentrated totally on Family Tree Maker at the exclusion of everything else.  Not only did they basically ignore Family Origins, they acquired and discontinued numerous competing programs, including Ultimate Family Tree, Family Tree Creator, and others.

During this time customers became increasingly worried about the future of Family Origins.  I even set my company up as a reseller for Genealogy.com, bought my own program from them, and resold it myself on our FormalSoft website.  I tried to reassure customers that Family Origins wasn’t going to die even though I was uncertain myself, but I had one advantage over the other programs.  Family Origins was licensed to A&E, but I still held the copyright, which meant they couldn’t kill the program, they could only release it back to me.  But this cut both ways; it also meant I couldn’t get the program back from them unless they agreed.  And they had no intention of releasing Family Origins back to me to compete with them.

Tensions ran tight between me and A&E.  Their lawyers made it more than clear that even though they weren’t promoting Family Origins, they were not going to release us from our licensing agreement.  They were planning on just sitting on the program until it died on its own.  Things got so bad that they even offered to pay me to sign an agreement that I wouldn’t badmouth Family Tree Maker (since, as they claimed, I was an “icon in the genealogy community”).  I have never badmouthed a competitor publicly (and never will), but I was happy to take their money to agree to do something I would have done anyways.

Finally, after several years of stress, it became clear that I was never going to be able to get Family Origins back.  And since my licensing agreement said they were entitled to sell any upgrades I wrote, I had only two options.  I could either wait for Family Origins to slowly die, or I could buy a new computer, lock up the one with the Family Origins source code, and start writing a new genealogy program completely from scratch (so that it didn’t qualify as an “upgrade”).  Call it stubbornness, or call it vindictiveness, but I had no intention of going down without a fight.

Next: The birth of RootsMagic

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 6: The Rise of Family Origins


NOTE: This is Part 6 of our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Now that we were basically a software “development” company rather than a publisher, I devoted full time to working on Family Origins.  Our agreement with Parsons was that we provide a new upgrade once a year, and they handled everything else… sales, marketing, and tech support.

The first couple of years were mostly uneventful.  We worked on new features that customers were requesting, and Parsons took care of the rest.  But there was always one item hanging over my head.  There was this newfangled operating system called Windows that customers wanted a genealogy program for.  The only problem was that I had absolutely no experience programming for Windows.  And it wasn’t a simple transition.  Programming for DOS and programming for Windows were two different animals.  In hindsight, I realize how many programs just disappeared because the company couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make the transition to Windows.

Realizing what a big job it would be to rewrite Family Origins to run under Windows, I decided on a different route.  Rather than cut my Windows programming teeth on a major project like Family Origins, I taught myself Windows programming while writing a much simpler program.  This little program started out as not much more than a calendar tied to a word processor control so that you could type in some text for any day past or future.  I tweaked it a bit more, and as it got stable, I approached Parsons to see if they would be interested in selling it.  We ended up licensing it to them, and they released it as Daily Journal.

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Although Daily Journal started out as simply a way for me to learn how to program for Windows, it became very popular, and we ended up releasing 3 versions over the years.

Once Daily Journal was published, I began working full time on the Windows version of Family Origins.  Parsons decided to just continue the version numbers, so the last DOS version of Family Origins was 2.5, and 3.0 became the first Windows version.  Version 3 turned out to be just the first of several rewrites of the Family Origins software.

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After the release of Family Origins for Windows, it became clear that we needed to increase the limitations of the software.  Family Origins was limited to 32,000 people in a single file, which was sufficient for most people but was increasingly limiting to users.  The file format of the original Family Origins was a proprietary format that I made up myself but to handle larger files I decided to switch to a real database engine.  I settled on a dBase file format, which at the time was a safe choice.  Since this was going to be a complete rewrite anyways, I also switched programming languages from Turbo Pascal to Microsoft C++.  I didn’t really want to change languages, but Parsons Technology had recently been purchased by Intuit (the Quicken people), and there were rumors that Microsoft was planning to buy Intuit.  I figured if Microsoft bought Intuit, then Family Origins would need to be written in a Microsoft language, and I didn’t want to have to do yet another rewrite if they did.

Once we had Family Origins 4 out, Parsons started testing out other markets.  One short-lived product was a German version of Family Origins called Ahnenforscher.  We translated the program, help files and documentation into German, but sales weren’t sufficient for Parsons to want me to create any updates to the software.

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Another market Parsons wanted to test was the bargain bin CDs in office supply stores.  They had me modify an older version of Family Origins, which was then renamed Discover Genealogy and sold for $9.95.  Although sales weren’t spectacular, the low price of Discover Genealogy did open up the world of family history to thousands of people.


We continued to release a new version of Family Origins every year for 10 years, with several of those upgrades being rewrites to support things like multiple databases open at the same time, and dragging and dropping people from one file into another.  Over the years Family Origins became well known, but most users never knew anything about FormalSoft, the company that actually wrote the program.  But no matter how much I enjoyed writing new versions of Family Origins and adding features that users requested, it was the behind the scenes issues that ultimately led to me “abandoning” Family Origins and starting back out on my own again.

NEXT: Mergers, acquisitions, and fights for the rights to Family Origins

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 5: The Origin of Family Origins


NOTE: This is Part 5 in our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

I made some friends at Parsons Technology during those early years, mostly in the “acquisitions” department.  One of those friends was Deb Winter, who was my primary contact with the company.  One day as we were talking on the phone, I mentioned my interest in family history.  When she asked if I had ever thought about writing a genealogy program, I told her that not only had I thought about it, but I had accidentally erased all the source code years earlier for an Apple II genealogy program that was 2/3 done.

She confided that Parsons number one request was for a genealogy program.  Family Tree Maker had just come out a couple of years earlier, and they wanted a program to compete with it.  When she said that it needed to be a clone of Family Tree Maker I declined, but I knew I needed to rewrite my long lost genealogy program for the PC.  I also knew that I would have to market it myself since Parsons began work on their own genealogy program at the same time.

In late 1991, I finished the first version of AncestraLink, the program that started it all.  It could hold up to 30 thousand people, but unlike most programs of the time, it supported real sources which could be entered once and reused for other people or facts.  Having learned a little about marketing from Parsons, we priced it at $29.95, and we’ve never strayed from that price point since.


We weren’t sure about how AncestraLink would sell, but we managed to get it into some retail stores and sales were nothing to complain about.  Every month sales increased, and it looked like we had a winner on our hands.  My main thought was that we needed to build up some market share before Parsons could release their program.

Then about 6 months after we starting selling AncestraLink, I got a call from Deb at Parsons asking if we would be interested in licensing our program to them.  Apparently, they discovered that writing a genealogy program is much more complicated than most other programs, and hadn’t even finished writing the libraries they needed to start.  They didn’t even care that our software wasn’t an FTM clone.  I knew that they could market AncestraLink in a way we could only dream of, so we agreed to an exclusive license with them.

They gave us a list of items we needed to address, mainly just changing the name of the program.  It only took a couple of weeks to make the changes, and in early 1992 Family Origins was born.

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I didn’t realize at the time what a big part of my life had just begun.  Our ProCalc 3D program never saw a version 2, but Family Origins grew to be one of Parson’s best-selling programs, and in the process brought me more joy and heartache than a software program should be allowed to.

NEXT: Family Origins’ early years

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 4: The Vegas Gamble


NOTE: This is Part 4 in our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

As our customer base for QubeCalc slowly grew, we began to get requests for a “more powerful” version of the program.  This really hit home when we exhibited at COMDEX Fall in November 1988.  It cost us almost $3000 for a 10×10 foot exhibit space, and once we set up, we realized we were really out of our league.  We didn’t have employees, so I worked the booth by myself the entire five days.  We took the kids and drove down to Las Vegas, and spent the week at the Motel 6.  During the conference, all I kept hearing was “Can the program do this like 1-2-3?  Can the program do that like 1-2-3?”  It made it clear that low-cost wasn’t enough, the program had to be more powerful.

I returned from COMDEX and spent the next year on a rewrite of QubeCalc, taking what worked well, changing what didn’t, and adding more “wonderfulness” to it.  In September of 1989, we released “ProQube,” so named because I figured it was a “professional” version of QubeCalc.  We decided that to be taken seriously, it shouldn’t be shareware, and it should be more expensive.  People kept telling me that a $69.95 spreadsheet obviously couldn’t compete with $495 programs, so we priced ProQube at $249.95 and put it in one of those fancy 3 ring binder slipcases like Microsoft and other “real software companies” used.  The problem is, if you didn’t order thousands of those binders at a time, they cost about $25 each.

And then if your $250 program doesn’t sell very well, you’re stuck with a bunch of very expensive binders.  After a year of slow sales, I lowered the price to $99 and created a light version of ProQube (called ProQube Lite) which I released as shareware and priced at $25.  We switched to a much cheaper cardboard box like the one in this MicroWarehouse ad from 1990.


This decision brought in enough sales for one final shot at COMDEX.  We spent nearly every last penny to make an impression at COMDEX ‘90.  We even bought a full-page ad in the COMDEX guide book.  We knew that we needed something big to come out of this show or it would be the end of the road, and I would have to go get a “real job” again.

During the show, a guy from the Justice Department came by the booth and asked for a demonstration of our products.  He didn’t really say much, but came back the next day and said that the department needed a site license for their agents in the field.  It looked like our ship had finally come in.  They were actually interested in our InstaCalc program to install on the portable computers of all department field agents.  They didn’t want to pay the high price for one of the big spreadsheet programs, but they were planning to spend more than enough to put our little company in good shape.

After COMDEX had ended, I spent the rest of the year corresponding back and forth with government paper pushers and continued several months into 1991.  With each passing day, week, and month I became more convinced that this was not going to happen in my lifetime.  As I was complaining to my wife about it, she suggested I call the 2 guys in trenchcoats who had given me their cards back at COMDEX.  I wasn’t even sure where I had put their card since it had been 3-4 months since COMDEX ended.

I finally found the card under a pile of papers and decided to give them a call.  Some guy named Bob Parsons who had a software company called Parsons Technology.  I hadn’t ever heard of them, but I figured I had nothing to lose at this point.  I called Bob, and we talked for some time as he told me they were really looking to add a spreadsheet program to their product offerings.  After several weeks of negotiations, we licensed our ProQube program to them, and they renamed it ProCalc 3D.


This was the beginning of a new phase in our company’s history.  We were now a software development company rather than a publisher.  We no longer had to worry about sales, support, marketing or anything else other than developing and enhancing our software.  Even so, it became a great opportunity to learn the ins and outs of software publishing from a much larger company.

With the release of ProCalc 3D, our first monthly royalty check from Parsons was more than we had made in a full year selling the software ourselves.  We were able to pay off credit cards, parents, and other assorted loans over the next year to put our company back in good fiscal shape.

But despite the success of ProCalc 3D, it was our next product that came to define us and set our company in a new direction that we have been traveling ever since.

NEXT: The World of Genealogy

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 3: The New Full-Time Job


NOTE: This is Part 3 in our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2.

As word of mouth spread about QubeCalc and InstaCalc, sales slowly picked up throughout 1987.  Then in August of 1987, we got our first “national” mention when Brit Hume wrote this article reviewing some shareware programs.

He actually called and talked to me about how much he liked the program, but I probably should have told him how to spell my last name.  My mom was so excited when she saw a syndicated copy of the article in her newspaper in Albuquerque.  I still have 3 or 4 copies of the article she cut out and sent to me.

The next month we decided to try and make this software thing a full-time business.  My wife Laurie was getting tired of trying to answer tech support questions during the day while I was at work and thought it might be nice if I got to answer the phones instead.  So we packed up and moved to Sandy, Utah.

Laurie’s parents were split on our decision to leave a nice paying engineer job and move 800 miles to be self-employed.  Her mom thought we were making a huge mistake, but her dad said we needed to go for it.  He said if we didn’t try we would always wonder “what might have been”.  Although there were many rough times during the early years, looking back now makes me appreciate even more the wisdom of that advice.

The first snag we hit after moving to Utah was our company name.  When we applied for the same FormalWare name, the state told us we couldn’t use it because it was confusing with a tux rental (formal wear) company.  Looking back now I realize that since we were in different industries we should have been able to use that name, but I was just a business novice, so I just accepted the decision and changed the company name to FormalSoft.  I chose that name simply because we were under a tight budget that let us keep our same logo, and required a minimal amount of changes to packaging and advertising materials.


We did tweak the logo just a little bit, making the bow tie and disk more “realistic,” but deep down I have always loved my simpler logo better.

The first several years in Utah were bumpy ones.  Expenses always seemed to exceed sales, and we didn’t have enough of a track record to get outside funding.  If it weren’t for our maxed out credit cards and loans from our parents, the company would have never survived those years.

But then in February 1988, we thought our fortunes had changed forever.  We started getting a bunch of phone orders from people who told us our software was awarded PC Magazine Editor’s Choice, which at the time was probably the highest honor a computer program could receive.  And not only that, but we now had two Editor’s Choice awards.


Sales took off and we figured we were on easy street, but this was to be a great learning opportunity.  Within a few weeks, sales had dropped back down and were barely higher than before.  Fame is fleeting, especially in the software business.  We realized if we wanted to continue to grow, we needed to do more advertising, but at least now we had these awards to use in our promotions.

We bought a pop-up booth to use at trade shows and in April 1988 we attended our first trade show, the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco.  I only owned one computer, so we hauled that out to California to demo our software to customers.


Over the next couple of years, we took our booth to numerous trade shows, including the big one in Vegas, COMDEX Fall.  Very rarely did we break even, but we kept pushing hoping that eventually we would get noticed.

NEXT: More products, and a chance encounter