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.