FileMaker Goes Indie

November 13th, 2007

Today FileMaker, a wholly owned subsidiary of Apple, best known for its professional database products, entered the indie software market.

Or at least, that’s what their new public beta, Bento, reminds me a lot of. It diverges from Apple style by showing all its warts in a public beta: a sort of clunky-yet-intriguing interface design, slow, hangs from time to time with the spinny cursor, the disk image looks amateurish, etc. All those cherished mistakes that we indie developers recognize because we’ve made them ourselves. FileMaker has joined our ranks!

It’s as though this stalwart professional software company has, after 15 years of releasing (practically?) nothing but updates to its FileMaker line of database software, got a wild hair up its butt and decided to target the mass consumer audience. With a public beta, of all things! If you would have asked me yesterday, I’d have guessed Al Gore would be more likely than FileMaker to release a public beta of consumer-oriented Mac software!

What inspired this? I can imagine a few scenarios. Bento looks a lot like what might have come about if some strategists at Apple were sitting around planning the future of the iWork suite of applications. They scroll down the list of “office suite” applications and check them off as they ship. Word Processor? Check. Presentation? Check. Spreadsheet? Check. Then somebody pulls out their dusty copy of ClarisWorks and says, “Wait a minute. We forgot the database!”

So the iWork team at Apple starts putting their work into the “database for everyday use.” It looks a lot like the other iWork applications in form and function. Things are going brilliantly when somebody gets whiff of the news over at FileMaker and starts screaming bloody murder. Because FileMaker is the database subsidiary of Apple, you can be damn sure that if Apple ships a consumer-oriented database app, they want to be the ones to ship it!

I imagine life at FileMaker must feel a little strange. You’re a full-fledged Apple employee in many respects. Except you have a different badge, are unlikely to commingle much with other Apple employees, work on a different campus, and if your subsidiary’s single product line goes out of business, you’re probably pounding the pavement for a new job.

So FileMaker hears about “iFields”, or whatever similar name Apple was mulling, and spots the opportunity to expand their lineup with a consumer application that could also help strengthen their bread-and-butter pro app. They start kicking and screaming. “Noooo! Give it to us! We needs it. Don’t takes it from us. Precious!” Meanwhile the team at Apple isn’t feeling particularly brilliant when it comes to visual database design, so they agree that it might be a good idea. FileMaker gets an indie product, and the iWork team gets to move on to the next great thing.

But FileMaker is independent enough of Apple that it also seems to market its products and promote itself in its own unique way. With its own, somewhat clunky and fallible standards. Somebody took a page from the indie rulebook and suggested a public beta. They shipped, and voila, Bento Tuesday.

But Enough Fantasy…

One of the fun things about indie software releases is that we don’t always cover our tracks very well. Sometimes it can be really embarrassing. For instance, you don’t want to release the file “Competition Analysis” in your application bundle. But usually, we reveal just a little more information about the history or intent of an application. A little game I like to play is “application archaeology,” where I go snooping through the application bundle to see what I can learn about the under-published facts about an application. So now that I’ve wildly speculated as to the history and rationale behind Bento, let’s try to uncover some real truths.

Bento’s codename was Gluon

You can learn a lot by peeking into the binary executable itself (Contents/MacOS/Bento). In this case you find a number of references to Bento’s other name, as well as the discovery that many of its Objective-C class names are prefixed with “GN”. This information isn’t particularly useful, except for nerd bragging rights, but it does give us some interesting fodder to do web searching with. Searching on “gluon” and “filemaker” yields a lot of hits, but mainly because a company called Gluon releases software into a similar market. A quick investigation doesn’t yield any clues that it might have been involved in Bento.

Bento’s Developers Love Brian Eno, Bugs Bunny, and D&D.

In the case of Bento, I discovered some text files that are apparently used to populate a test database. In it, we find entries for some well-known musicians and cartoon characters. Among the characteristic attributes in this test database schema are “Charisma” and “Dexterity.” Not exactly your everday Address Book attributes. Nerds!

Bento Has Secret Features

Much like Safari’s debug menu, you can enable one in Bento:

 defaults write com.filemaker.bento ShowDebugMenu -bool Yes

Do this, relaunch Bento and you get a very intriguing menu with options including something called “Secret Squirrel,” and a built-in theme designer. Wow! Handle with care, though. You know if the app itself is “beta”, this stuff is seriously without warranty.

As you tweak the settings, you see the results live on your edit window. Look at the bottom of the window for Action menu to save, etc.

Bento Was An Apple Product – Or FileMaker Uses Apple’s Mailing Lists

One tidbit I uncovered while poking around was a reference to an Apple-internal support mailing list. Does this suggest that Apple was directly developing this application, as I speculated? Or does it merely mean that FileMaker uses Apple’s infrastructure for mailing lists?

Bento Uses Growl – Or Intended To

One of the things I can’t overlook while snooping around is the presence of Growl.framework inside the application bundle. I haven’t played with the app enough to actually see a notification, but just knowing it’s there made me load up the Growl preferences and look for registered notification types. Darn, nothing listed!

If Bento is using Growl or intended to, it just furthers my speculation that this is the most “indie” app Apple has ever produced. Can anybody else cite an Apple application that uses Growl? Or ships the framework? It’s sort of part of Growl’s mission statement to get Apple to include Growl or Growl-like functionality in the system. Could this be a sign of things to come?

Bento Is Version 4.2 Of … Something!

In the “embarrassing resource contents” department, FileMaker shipped a copy of the cumulative release notes for the application. The document doesn’t include any dates, so it’s hard to speculate, but in it we learn that the “newest” release to which the notes applied was something called “Gluon 4.2.” It’s possible that they just used an aggressive internal versioning scheme during the development, but it almost seems possible that the application had a life of its own prior to FileMaker, or that it was developed with a version number meant to stay in sync with some companion product. Update: looking closer, I see it’s jumped from 3.1, to 4.1, to 4.2. So I’m not sure that really meshes with the fantasy of another product’s versioning scheme.

OK – Back To Work

Enough archaeology, I’ve got to get back to work. It was fun digging through a little bit, but I’m sure I’ve only scraped the surface. It will be interesting to read what others uncover as they play with this interesting new indie app from our friends at FileMaker.

38 Responses to “FileMaker Goes Indie”

  1. Andy W Says:

    As mentioned on a mailing list I’m on, try doing a Google search for “opendoc bento” for another possible piece of this very odd puzzle.

  2. Ash Ponders Says:

    Looking at the Bento beta page alone, you’d have no idea that FileMaker was an apple company. For a second there I was wondering if they were spun off, and this was their first new release.

  3. Paul Turnbull Says:

    Or does it merely mean that FileMaker uses Apple’s infrastructure for mailing lists?

    That would it be it, or at least it jives with conversations I had with FMI engineers at the last DevCon. I know they have access to the crash reports sent to Apple and would assume they have access to the other lists as well.

  4. David Clark Says:

    >3.1, to 4.1, to 4.2

    Mysql? or wishful thinking on my part?y

  5. TheBoyKen Says:

    “It diverges from Apple style by showing all its warts in a public beta”

    What about Mac OS X Public Beta?
    X11 Public beta (prior to 10.2)?
    iChat Public Beta?
    Safari Public Beta (and later Safari 3 / For Windows Public Beta)?
    Boot Camp Public Beta?
    Spaces 1.0?

    Oops scrub that last one, I don’t think it was officially released as a beta product ;)

  6. Jim Main Says:

    Someone noted that Bento uses SQLite, which is why it requires Leopard. Gluon is an “open source full-stack framework for fast development of database driven web applications”, see:

    So perhaps Bento was developed using Gluon on a SQLite database?

  7. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Jim – I doubt that the Gluon framework is related. Seems like more of a coincidence, to me! But an interesting coincidence…

  8. Adam Jury Says:

    Among the characteristic attributes in this test database schema are “Charisma” and “Dexterity.” Not exactly your everday Address Book attributes. Nerds!

    Sweet! We need a rockin’ OSX app for RPG character management!

    I mean, uh… nerds!

  9. Me Says:

    Not that it matters, but FileMaker employees have Apple badges.


  10. Erik Says:

    Unless I accidentally installed it myself, Tiger also has SQLite–so there’s likely more to Bento’s Leopard requirements than a database backend.

    I love the app’s name, though it certainly isn’t as “obvious” a name as most recent Apple software. All the more reason to call it “indie”–well done, Mr. Jalkut!

  11. Krioni Says:

    I did the search suggested above, but added gluon as well. Guess what is out there? An article titled “Gluons and the
    Cooperation between Software Components” that mentions OpenDoc’s Bento format, and says “A Bento object contains a collection of properties and properties contain values which are the placeholders where data is actually stored.”

  12. c.libre Says:

    If you open Bento’s dictionary in Script Editor, you’ll see that it provides a suite called “Gluon Scripting.”

  13. Aaron Harnly Says:

    Erik wrote:

    there’s likely more to Bento’s Leopard requirements than a database backend.

    Well, it certainly makes liberal use of Core Animation as well, for those are the spiffy fade-ins and fade-outs, and sliding-around rearrangement. Though frankly I’m finding the effects a little annoying, and am grateful for the preference to disable them.

  14. Chucky Says:

    I thought the true clue to indie-ness was the Dock screenshot on the Bento site showing!

  15. Günther Says:

    “Can anybody else cite an Apple application that uses Growl?”

    Apple Software Update uses Growl in Leopard.

  16. Conor Says:

    I was working on an identical application. Certainly not going to go head to head with FileMaker that scares me; time to go back to my regular programming. Their database structure is much better than what I have; it has a number of join tables and complicated relationships in order to keep it flexible; not that it comes as a surprise from FileMaker.

  17. Paolo Says:

    Well I’ll certainly give this a whirl for the hell of it (once I install Leopard; waiting for 10.5.1, wimp that I am :)

    I used to be a huge FM evangelist and made a decent living off it for 5 or 6 years, but then I shifted to MySQL/PHP and would never go back. My problem (or one of them) with FM Inc is that they now seem to be building Windoze products and then porting it to OS X. It’s embarassing that they didn’t have a Leopard-ready version of FM (and I believe <9.0 won’t work in Leopard) but if it’s not a Cocoa app that might explain their delay.

    PS Nice blog :)

  18. Michael Long Says:

    My own “first look” is up as well. My initial conclusion is that Bento is pretty and easy to use, but lacks the power to do any real work. It’s just an intro product designed to get people to move up to FileMaker.

  19. Tom B Says:

    “Bento’s Developers Love Brian Eno, Bugs Bunny, and D&D.”

    Well, at least they are discriminating. Did I make my saving throw?

  20. Jim Stewart Says:

    Alternative hypothesis: Apple have had their fingers burnt in the past, being accused of stealing indie developers’ lunch. Maybe they planned all along to make use of their Filemaker brand to distance themselves from this app, making it look a bit more independent?

  21. Julian Cheal Says:

    The plot thickens! I’ve just had an RSS update in Mail from Apple Hot News.

    “Apple Hot News Introducing Bento. The stylish personal database for Leopard.”

    Does Apple normally put out a hot news for beta software?

    I’m glad it’s not just me that goes digging around in applications for fun. Hmn I wonder what secrets are in Mars Edit…

  22. Dave Barnes Says:

    Grammar Nazi Alert.

    “I can imagine a few scenarios”
    should be
    “I can imagine a few scenari”

  23. Simon J Says:

    “–noun, plural -nar·i·os.”

  24. Aaron Priven Says:

    I’m sure they didn’t want to write an RPG character database because — if my own experience is any guide — they will inevitably leave the cassette tape of the program where it could be corrupted by radiation from the TV and be unable to load it back into their Timex/Sinclair 1000.

  25. Garrett Albright Says:

    Can someone who has Leopard and has tried this out answer this; does Bento support connecting to databases via a LAN (that is, can several clients connect to the same database)? And can it import FileMaker databases? We currently use FileMaker at work to track client details… It’s expensive and uggggg-lyyyyy. This program looks like much less of an eyesore, and having the data in an SQLite file would make it much easier to get data into and out of with our in-house apps.

  26. Rob Says:

    Garrett Asked: “does Bento support connecting to databases via a LAN (that is, can several clients connect to the same database)? And can it import FileMaker databases?”

    Answers: No and No

  27. Rob Says:

    See for a filemaker developer’s blog take on bento

  28. delta Says:

    Growl is used by Safari, Camino. And there is a OS X application called Growl which send you system messages.

  29. delta Says:

    “does Bento support connecting to databases via a LAN (that is, can several clients connect to the same database)? And can it import FileMaker databases?”

    In my opinion YES. Bento connects to the Adressbook at least in my test – the addressbook was immediatley there. Meaning Bento does when the Server version is out and Bento is active mid February – sync/replicate to the Server Addressbook

    No it’s not like Openbase, Frontbase – more like the older Novell Database.

    Bento has nice layouts. Even the addressbook export works – there are other workarounds too of course – but Apple doesn’t deliver a proper export function.

  30. petermar Says:

    My first take is that Bento is iphone drive. At least the time of the release is: January, iphone opens up in Febuary.

    Database programs are not consumer products. The will use a word processor or spreadsheet way before they will figure out what a record or a field is.

    Data, on the other hand, is a consumer product. How nice to have it all stuffed in a pretty package, downloadable from itunes , on my iphone.

    So put Bento on my iphone, give me a few templates that I think I will use, but wont, then post twenty data filled files on itunes, like “San Franciso’s Best Kept Secrets” under travel or a Spanish word lookup, or the hundred best novels, albums and movies. But the best part will be the developers finding endless almanacs that iphone users will pay .99 for.

  31. That One Dude Says:

    petermar is on to something with the iPhone theory… Notice on FileMaker’s site: they’re discontinuing sales of “FileMaker Mobile” for Palm and PocketPeeCee…

  32. Paul Says:

    Got to be FM Mobile replacement. From “Apple has announced that an iPhone SDK will be available in February 2008. Will FileMaker be developing an iPhone solution?
    Once the iPhone SDK is available to us (in February 2008) we plan to take a close look at it and evaluate our options for further support of the iPhone.

  33. Colleen Says:

    “Database programs are not consumer products. The will use a word processor or spreadsheet way before they will figure out what a record or a field is.”

    I beg to differ. I have several cliens still chugging away with Appleworks for their Christmas card list and similar applications. I’m happy to see something less aged for them to switch to. Hopefully it will have the great label-printing options that Address Book does.

  34. Kremlin Says:

    Good introduction to non tech db users, but how about at least offering an .xls import/export option. Non db users will use this to get an introduction and .csv is not enough. I do think that Bento should allow multi user access via the web….personal database is so “selfish” dont you think?

  35. leeg Says:

    @colleen: “Hopefully it will have the great label-printing options that Address Book does.”

    Erm, it does…the contact information is synchronised with Address Book so you can use the label-printing options…_in_ Address Book :-)

    Personally, I think this is an argument for more sync APIs in applications and more use of the Services Menu…if one application already does something particularly well, I shouldn’t wish other apps do it the same way. I should wish I could get to that thing from the other apps. So if OmniFocus lets me note that I need to write my thankyou letters, it doesn’t need great WP so I can write them…it needs to let me get to Pages. Then I need to be able to get my contacts; neither Pages nor OmniFocus needs to be good at storing contacts, they need to be good at letting me use Address Book. If I want to send a photo to my aunt of me wearing the three-armed sweater she knitted me, none of Pages, OmniFocus nor Address Book need a photo library, they need to let me use iPhoto. And so forth.

  36. Adam Says:


    I have just started using Bento and I Love it.

    One thing i have to complain about is that when you choose the black theme, its hard to see the text in Related data fields.

    I understand that you can change themes with an editor ?

    Im not very cluey and dont understand how to accses it.

    Can you please explain ?


  37. Rogier Says:

    Apple needs a light database program for “iWork” to compete with the MS “Acces”….

  38. John Flack Says:

    If Bento requires MySQLlite, does the iPhone have any signs of mySQLlite?


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