The recent Ancestry.com announcement about the retirement of Family Tree Maker has once again raised an interest in the issue of whether or not family historians or genealogists need a local, desktop-based genealogical database program at all. There are many different opinions and reasons for being either in favor of using a desktop program or abandoning the desktop for online family trees. This controversy is particularly evident among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who see the evolving FamilySearch.org Family Tree program as a "permanent" storage option.
When I refer to a "desktop" genealogy database program, I mean a program that resides entirely on your local computer and is designed to record genealogical information and store that information on your computer's hard drive or a connected drive. These programs may or may not have a network connection to an online family tree and/or resource database. A desktop-based program will function independently without an active connection to the Internet. This fact alone has been one of the major considerations in depending on a local program. It is only recently that genealogists became overwhelmingly online.
If you have limited access to the Internet, then the need for a local program is obvious. But for those of us (likely included are those reading a blog post) who have a consistent and active involvement online, the decision becomes less obvious and far less easily decided. The first and most serious consideration is the issue of maintaining separate databases and keeping them in synchronization. If you choose to have a local program as your primary database, how do you maintain an online family tree? Programs such as Ancestry.com's Family Tree Maker and Family Tree Builder from MyHeritage.com in the most recent versions, are designed to synchronize with the user's online family tree. In these programs the entire tree is synchronized at one time. Programs such as RootsMagic.com, Legacy Family Tree and Ancestral Quest are designed to synchronize, one data field at a time, with the FamilySearch.org Family Tree.
The challenge is the time it takes to coordinate or synchronize data between two programs and if a person has more than one online family tree the challenge is magnified. For those with an LDS Account on Ancestry.com, there is a limited ability to synchronize individual data and sources directly between Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org's Family Tree. Otherwise, the user has to rely on copy and paste to move information between the other programs. Having a desktop-based program adds a significant amount of maintenance overhead to maintaining a family tree, if it is used only for backup purposes.
One of the major reasons for keeping a desktop program is that most of the current supported programs are significantly more full-featured that their online counterparts. Here is where the level of sophistication of the user becomes of paramount importance. Entry level genealogists or family historians are mostly overwhelmed with the complexity of doing the research and recording the information, the thought of duplicating the work by adding in additional family trees does not even become a consideration. On the other hand, as a researcher's level of sophistication increases, the need to have your own "controlled" environment becomes more important and the features present in the desktop programs become interesting and useful.
One factor that arises in this context is the existence of the GEDCOM program. Originally, this was designed to assist in the transfer of genealogical data from one program to another. Because the GEDCOM standard has not been updated for many years now, transferring information, other than basic data, by using a GEDCOM files has become less and less useful. For my part, except in very limited situations, I no longer consider a GEDCOM transfer to be a viable option.
For users of the FamilySearch.org Family Tree program, a major consideration has been the apparent lack of stability of the data. The wiki format is unfamiliar to all but very experienced users and the idea that changes can be made to the data is unsettling to newer users. For this reason, there is a perceived need to have an "archive" copy of the individual's data to restore an incorrect change. This is a very persuasive argument but assumes that the data held by the user in his or her individual file is accurate and current. It is also a fact that the Family Tree contains far more information than any one individual is accustomed to maintain even for those who have extraordinarily large family files. Considering the degree of accuracy shown by many of those making changes to the Family Tree, having your own copy of your data only makes sense if you have extensive documentation.
In summary, the need for a desktop, local program for genealogy depends on your level of expertise. My guess is that most entry level family historians are going to find that the online family tree programs are sufficient. If and when you begin to appreciate the added features of a desktop program, there are plenty of them available.