Bento by FileMaker (the other view)

Matthew JC. Powell
22 February, 2008
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Back when Apple announced Pages and bundled it with Keynote, calling the resultant “suite” iWork, people immediately began referring to iWork as the successor to the long-abandoned AppleWorks productivity package. Apple, for its part, did not repudiate the description but was careful to say it was not a replacement for AppleWorks.

And well it should. Even now that iWork includes a spreadsheet as well as word processing and presentation software, it is the successor to AppleWorks in much the same way George W. Bush is the successor to Abraham Lincoln. It may have a similar title, but it is in no way a replacement.

The most glaring omission is any sort of database application. You can use Numbers as a very simple list manager, or if you have complex database requirements you could splurge on FileMaker Pro — a very expensive option and overkill for most people used to the functionality of AppleWorks.

Without actually being part of the iWork suite, Bento fills in that gap for people whose database requirements fall in between Numbers and FMP. And, as a first release, it does so pretty well.

iTunes for data. Clearly the designers at FileMaker are unafraid to take some design cues from their parent company, because Bento looks very much like an i-app. Most specifically, it looks like iTunes or iPhoto. Over on the left is a column with your libraries, which are effectively the same as albums or playlists, and in the main screen is the content of the library you’re working on. In fact, it won’t be an entirely unfamiliar interface for longtime AppleWorks users.

Clearly the underlying structure of Bento allows a degree of relation between databases, as you can incorporate your Address Book and iCal information seamlessly — and they are really nothing more than specialised databases. Changes you make to either calendars or addresses are reflected in the native apps too — there’s no syncing involved.

Bento also has a limited ability to incorporate e-mail from Apple’s Mail app, but this is very limited. You can’t, for instance, have Bento automatically retrieve e-mails associated with a particular project. Nor can you use Bento to create Address Book groups — you have to use Address Book for that. Little inconveniences like this prevent Bento from being a fully-fledged unified interface for OS X’s inbuilt applications. I can’t tell you how many users of Microsoft Entourage I’ve spoken to who would switch to Mail if only they didn’t have to use multiple applications for calendaring and contacts.

If FileMaker isn’t thinking in that direction for future versions though, I’ll be surprised.

The works? The big question for AppleWorks users, though, is “can I finally bring all my legacy databases into the 21st century and abandon AppleWorks”? And the answer is an emphatic no.

Despite its seamless integration with iCal and Address Book, Bento is almost incapable of sharing data with other applications. It can only import data as comma-separated text files, so all the work you’ve put in to layouts, forms et cetera in AppleWorks would need to be redone.

What’s more, Bento isn’t particularly good at importing CSV text. In my testing it would include random fields if there was the slightest hint of an error in the export, so again a lot of manual reformatting to be done.

The strangest thing is that you can’t share Bento libraries, even with other Bento users. In order to move your data to another copy of Bento, you have to export it as CSV and then re-import it. Otherwise you have to copy over the entire Bento database, including all libraries. This, to me, seems odd. I can sync only selected playlists between iTunes and my iPod, so it seems to make sense I should be able to share selected libraries in Bento.

Again, for Apple’s future thinking, I would suggest an easy way to transition AppleWorks databases (much the same way as there were automated processes to bring databases from FileMaker Pro 6 to FileMaker Pro 8) and some better capability of sharing Bento databases between users. Obviously this isn’t a workgroup product and FileMaker doesn’t want to eat into its FileMaker Pro business, but families with home networks like to be able to share data too.

So what is it good for? As well as offering glimpses of enormous potential for the future, Bento is a pretty nifty application as it is. It includes numerous templates for a range of common database needs and it’s easy to customise these to your own specifications. Building a database is every bit as easy as throwing together a web page in iWeb or whipping up a simple layout in Pages.

If your data-management needs are fairly straightforward but more complex than a spreadsheet can handle, and you’re not an AppleWorks user looking to leave the past behind, Bento is as good a solution as you’re going to find.

Australian Macworld’s buying advice. I happen to like Bento. I like the interface, I like the ease of use. Some of the Apple-designed themes are a little twee, but if you’ve used iDVD you already know that. However, all those AppleWorks users who have decried iWork for its lack of a database will not be assuaged by this offering.

Bring on version 2

Bento by FileMaker

Type Single-user database application
Rating 3.5
Pros Easy (you might even say fun) to use; integrates perfectly with iCal and Address Book; could potentially be the replacement for AppleWorks
Cons Some odd quirks in terms of missing features
OS X 10.5
Processor Universal
RRP $79
Publisher FileMaker 1800 028 316

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