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

10 thoughts to “Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 7: Missed Opportunities and Murky Waters”

  1. The big guys just have no concept of playing fair. I am sure you and I are not the only ones who have had to fight their way out of a paper bag to reclaim what is rightfully ours. That is life and only the tough survive.

  2. This is absolutely fascinating, Bruce. I had no idea of all the drama and machinations going on in the background. We’re very lucky that you persevered. Thank you for all your efforts and determination not to give in or give up! And thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

  3. I am very pleased that you are providing us genealogists with Roots Magic and the continual improvements you have made. I was using The Master Genealogist for years and even served as a beta tester for a few of those years. Sadly I saw the future for TMG was very limited as the owner had some serious health problems. TMG is long gone and the users left high and dry for the future. Fortunately Bruce provided a bridge for TMG users to move to RM. Other companies promised making a tool to move from TMG, but they failed to do so! – Thanks Bruce for being responsible.

  4. I’m glad you made the choice to fight. (There are some things about FTM that I like a lot – but it’s never really gotten out of the 90s in a lot of others.)

  5. This has been a fascinating story. I’m so familiar with so many of the companies and software programs you have mentioned. It was InstaCalc that first got me interested in computers. It wasn’t long after seeing an InstaCalc demo that I started working on my own family tree. One day, after receiving a response to a query from a distant relative who had sent me a number of computer print-outs of his family tree I renewed my interest in computers. I couldn’t afford a REAL computer system but I did see a little Timex-Sinclair 1000 at Service Merchandise for $50 so I bought it. I learned a (very) little bit of programming with it, but was able to grow my computer skills & systems. Finally, after I could buy a REAL computer I found Family Origins. After that I was a confirmed Family Origins user and quasi genealogist. Earlier this year, after searching for a really good genealogy program (I’ve tried FTM, Family Tree Builder from My Heritage, Legacy Family Tree and a bunch of others) I found RootsMagic. It’s a great program and I have recommended it to all my genealogist friends. Oh, by the way, I also now work as a data analyst thanks to my first demo of InstaCalc!

  6. I have been with Roots Magic for several years and have always loved the program and the upgrades have even made so many things better. I have bought several copies of Roots Magic and had them sent to relatives as I had started them out with the free versions and then they went right into Roots Magic. I have loved the support of the videos and they have helped educate myself and my husband. Thanks for the greatest program ever.

  7. Bruce B.: Happy Birthday, RootsMagic!
    Thanks for this history of RootsMagic. I enjoy history and have enjoyed reading about RM’s development. Your bumps and bruises with bigger companies have led the way to a very good product. Since FamilyTreeMaker was abandoned by Ancestry.com (though Ancestry subsequently felt the anger of FTM users and sold it to MacKiev–probably at a nice profit), I have searched for an alternative among many companies and landed finally on RootsMagic. I have been studying the Webinars and finding how more powerful this program is then I had known. Your explanations in these Webinars are very clear and thorough. RootsMagic is friendly to a mediocre computer-user like me. I perceive that you are really in touch with genealogy and genealogists, and have our needs in your sights. Regarding the future, we have seen that health issues curtailed a loved “The Master Genealogist”. I hope there is a good succession plan should you be unable or choose not to continue. But, don’t get it entangled in big for-profit holding companies as FTM did. Easy then to lose touch with real grass-roots genealogists when profits and corporate salaries become first goals (like in the health care industry). Thanks again for your story! –Bruce H.

  8. This explains a lot as to what was happening behind the scenes, as we waited to see what was happening to Family Origins. Was a big relief when the message came thru with a new name. I believe the information cameon our rootsweb mailing list. Thanks Bruce for working so hard to make this happen. Thank you for sharing the History of Family Origin and then RootsMagic. RootsMagic from day one has always been recommended by me. You sent me 6 CD’s on FamilyOrigins as part of the push to use your program. They were well used.

  9. Happy Birthday to RootsMagic! I agree with Bruce H., I hope you have people in your organization that can carry on your great program. I have been on your programs since starting on Family Origins. It has been a great ride! Good work, Mr. Buzbee!!

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