The fact that the question in the title of this blog post is even a consideration today is a reflection of the major changes in the online genealogical programs. A year or two ago the answer from nearly all of the practicing genealogists would have been strongly in the affirmative. Today, I am not so sure that the responses might be mixed with some genealogists maintaining that a desktop/personal program is not necessary. The answer might also vary in proportion to the degree of online sophistication of the respondent.
Let's start with some basics. Can you still do an adequate job of researching your ancestors using only paper references and by only recording the information on paper? The answer is probably yes, with qualifications. Put in another context, the question would be something such as, can you still walk across the United States? Again, the answer is yes, with qualifications. The qualifications to both questions would be why would you want to do either one? As far as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are concerned there are additional considerations. The simple fact is that the only way to authorize Temple ordinances is by using FamilySearch.org Famiy Tree. So, if you are involved in this aspect of Family History, the answer is that you will need to become involved in using the computer either directly or through a helper.
Moving along past the fundamental question of paper vs. computer, I think the movement to computers has benefits that far override any of the reasons for avoiding the computer. Now I can move to the question of whether or not you can maintain all of your family history information online or if you still need a desktop program?
To begin to answer the question, we need to recognize that there is a huge disparity between family historians. We have professional level genealogists at one end of the spectrum and brand-new beginners at the other end. I am of the opinion that new users have enough of a challenge with learning an online program such as FamilySearch.org's Family Tree without adding in the additional burden of learning a desktop program. I think that the beginner will be doing well to put all their data on FamilySearch.org Family Tree, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com or findmypast.com or one of the other large online family tree programs.
The immediate response from the other end of the spectrum is that you need to have an "archive" level copy of your data and that putting it all online is not wise and that you need to maintain your own notes and research etc. Right off, I will say all those are valid reasons for having your own, individual desktop program. But I think that these same reasons go right over the head of the newer family historian.
So do we end up with a double standard? We encourage seasoned users to have their own database on their own computer, while at the same time we let the new users dangle out their dependent solely on their connection to one of the online family trees? I think solving the issue of the new user is like bailing the ocean, it is an unending and unrewarding job. Most of the people my children and grandchildren's ages are so completely entrenched online, they have a hard time seeing the benefit of a desktop program. The exception is for a program that can synchronize automatically with the online family tree and therefore overcomes the need to manually copy information between trees.
I now do not automatically recommend a desktop program. Before saying anything, I explore the level of usage of the person and then make recommendations based on their experience, commitment to family history and several other factors.