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Issue 8.1


Bento 3.0

Issue: 8.1 (November/December 2009)
Author: Dave Mancuso
Article Description: No description available.
Article Length (in bytes): 6,358
Starting Page Number: 12
Article Number: 8106
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The story of Bento, FileMaker's personal database application, is an odd one. The rumor is that it was originally intended to be the database element of the iWork application suite. At some point the database was spun off into its own orbit. The database application (codenamed "Gluon") became Bento, and FileMaker took custodianship of it. It became an entry level cousin to FileMaker Pro, but it was obviously a very different beast. Bento is a nexus point for iApps, heavily integrated with iPhoto, Address Book, and iCal. It's designed to become a home for all your data, trying to prove that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Bento autosaves like FileMaker Pro, but the reason is completely different. Bento isn't document-based. It's library-based. The libraries are displayed in the left panel of Bento's main window. Each library in Bento could be considered a table in a SQLite database. In fact, the libraries are all stored in a SQLite database hidden in the user's Library folder (Application Support, Bento). You'd never know this from using the application. Bento is all about the interface, and the interface is all about giving you a turnkey solution. Bento is designed to hide you from the complexities of anything to do with database design, form, or function.

Bento has prebuilt templates in a variety of styles. If you want a different style, Bento gives you the ability to change the look of your forms at any time, with a live transition to the new look that's obviously based on Core Image. It gives you both a Forms view and a table List view, and will give you both in the same window if you'd like. Thus you can have a field list inside a form. Adding a new field to the form (and the Library) displays a dialog box with numbered steps and explanations for each step (Choose a Field Type, Name the Field, and Options). It's clear that Bento works extremely hard to help the regular user design databases.

It's not completely clear if Bento is flat file or relational. You can relate fields in two different libraries, but FileMaker used to do this with flat file databases and a special "Lookup" field. FileMaker says that Bento is relational, and the SQLite the databases are saved in is relational, but purists on the web differ. What's clear is that Bento gives you no power user mode to dig into the SQLite parts of the database. A primary or key field can be made implicitly, but there's no way to control the database as you can do by making your own in REALbasic. In addition, there's no way to make a database that runs itself without the host Bento application. It seems silly to compare Bento with REALbasic's database capabilities, but you might look at Bento as a quick way to create a database for yourself. Could Bento be used for some quick purposes instead of taking the time to build a database in REALbasic? In contrast, there's no comparison. Bento is very good at doing what it does, but what it does is very narrowly focused. REALbasic is wide open in terms of flexibility if you have a bit of time, and it lets you dig into SQLLite all you want.

One thing that Bento does nicely is integrate with iPhoto, Address Book, and iCal. You can see data from these applications in Bento Libraries, and manipulate their data from inside the Bento application. Be careful to read the documentation of you do this. In some cases Bento will modify data in these other applications, but not always. Also, things you add to Bento for these other applications will not be added to their data sets. Bento tracks your extra information and uses it as extended fields, but does not modify original data in the other applications. You'll need to study how Bento uses data from other applications to get a feel for it (and avoid messing things up).

Apple's HyperCard is receding into the past fairly quickly, but one thing that HyperCard has was an active user community that shared files, templates, and ideas very well. The community was a secret killer feature of HyperCard. FileMaker is trying to do something similar with Bento. It's created a user community for Bento with shared templates. FileMaker has seeded the template exchange with starter files, and slowly the collection is being added to by users. With the release of Bento 3, FileMaker hopes that the application gains critical mass and that the template area expands.

Designing and using libraries and templates are, as you might expect, easy to do as long as you don't need anything outside of the boundaries that Bento has set for you. Even within these rules, you can design new templates that are related to each other, getting much further than you might think.

At first glance, Bento seems like a database application that might work in a pinch instead of creating one from scratch in SQL. On further examination, Bento is a tool for certain kinds of things, but by no means for everything. If you need what it does, you'll do very well with it. FileMaker offers a free trial download to experiment with Bento for thirty days. It's certainly worth a look, and perhaps a purchase if it meets your needs.

End of article.