Bento and the return of the personal database

When you think back to the dawn of corporate PCs in the early 1980s, its single most important aspect was that it broke the monopoly that corporate IT had on information. If the spreadsheet were the only application for a PC, it would likely be sufficient for many users. But of course we need more — database applications, for example.

It was nice to be able to crunch numbers, but having unfettered access to structured data — as existed on the mainframes — could provide knowledge workers with flexible and fast methods to slice and dice data, without their having to wait perhaps months for the mainframe programming department to get around to giving them their new data view.

So before long, the PC spawned database programs — the most emblematic of which was Ashton-Tate’s dBase II, which was followed a decade later by Microsoft’s Access relational database. From the beginning, however, anything more than rudimentary work required at least some knack for programming — often formal training.

Today, although dBase is long gone, Microsoft’s Access, FileMaker International’s FileMaker Pro and other similar programs offer very powerful relational-database features for enterprise knowledge workers. Still, I’ve seen that many users aren’t able to harness (through no fault of the programs) the basic benefit of such products: the relationships among records.

While the fundamental storage element of a relational database — the table — looks much like a two-dimensional spreadsheet (records with fields in them), it is the linkage of those tables that unleashes the power and creates a true database. In my experience, almost every time I’ve been shown an Access “database” built by a typical knowledge worker (someone not trained in database programming), it has turned out to be nothing more than a bunch of spreadsheets residing together in a database file format.

That brings us at long last to Bento, a brand-new personal database program from FileMaker that is in preview for release in January 2008. Where FileMaker’s flagship personal and corporate product, FileMaker Pro, comes in Windows and Mac versions, Bento is available only for the Mac. I was struck from the outset that a product like this finally might enable those without any knowledge of database architecture or structure to create very useful databases almost as easily as they could, say, use Pages on the Mac to create a company newsletter or build a mail-merge with Microsoft Word.

Fortunately, the lack of a Windows version does not mean that users with data on Windows clients or servers can’t avail themselves of the program. Bento has import and export functions that let the user move structured data from almost any platform into and out of the program. Like other database programs, Bento comes with a number of template databases for common uses. Many are ready-to-use corporate applications, such as Event Planning, Issue Tracking, Projects and so forth. Perhaps they’re not sufficiently heavy-duty for all users, but they certainly would seem suitable for departmental, single-user applications.

In its attempt to make data organization meaningful to non-techies, Bento dispenses with terms like “database” and “table” in favor of “library” and “collection.” In fact, the tutorial notes the similarities to building a playlist in iTunes. I, for one, never thought I’d see a database able to achieve that level of simplicity. Yet another reason to consider a Mac?

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