Widening its arsenal of approachable but powerful database solutions, FileMaker, Inc. has released an iPhone and iPod touch version of Bento, the company's database software geared towards individuals. Designed for people who don't need the relational database features or networking capabilities of FileMaker Pro, the Mac-only Bento has become popular by offering templates for common database uses and themes that simplify making attractive interfaces.
Bento for iPhone and iPod touch, available in the App Store for $4.99, can be used as a standalone database application or to synchronize data between handheld and desktop databases using Bento 2 on a Mac. The company includes templates for such common data tracking needs as expenses, recipes, to-do lists, event planning, charitable donations, and more. As with the desktop version of Bento, users may create their own databases (called "libraries" to make the idea sound less scary, and more like something a normal human would want to use) and modify them on the fly.
FileMaker's example libraries are somewhat limited, as is often the case, especially considering the many iPhone apps that offer better interfaces and more features than would be possible in a Bento library. When considering whether Bento could be useful to you, think about data that you might want to track that's sufficiently specific that no one would have come up with an app for it - photos of and details about your house plants, the members of a club you manage, that sort of thing.
Adam and I had the opportunity to preview Bento for iPhone last week, and while no doubt there will be some iPhone and iPod touch users who install Bento purely for handheld use, the killer feature of this software is its integration with Bento on a Mac. Why? Handy as it is to be able to enter data on an iPhone when you're out and about, we think most users will want to do data entry on a real keyboard whenever possible, and access the info when away from the computer.
Unfortunately, Bento's syncing feature is hobbled by the same limitation as Apple's Keynote Remote app: it works only if both the handheld and the Mac are on the same Wi-Fi network subnet. This means it won't work if your Mac uses a wired network or one of the many incompatible enterprise wireless networks that create logical subnets for different devices connected to the same access point. A FileMaker representative says the company is aware of the problem, and plans to "make it a priority to address in an update." Creating an ad-hoc network on your Mac for your iPhone to connect to will help in some such situations.
Bento's capability to interact with data from core iPhone apps like Contacts is especially slick. Not only can it display names and phone numbers, but it also enables the user to add additional fields like a nickname, phonetic pronunciation, and instant message screen name that will remain associated with the address book entry. So far, while Bento for Mac lets users manipulate calendar and to-do entries in iCal, these libraries can't be synced to the iPhone version of Bento.
At just $4.99 for your iPhone or iPod touch, Bento is a useful tool by itself, but we think it will be most effective when paired with the $49 desktop software. We'd also like to see FileMaker help users break Bento libraries out into standalone apps for the iPhone and iPod touch. After all, if you come up with the ultimate library for tracking details about house plants, you very well may want to make it available to other iPhone users.