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Apple's Bento can provide structure for any number of everyday tasks—like planning your kid's birthday party
Databases are the workhorses of modern computing. When you buy a plane ticket, get a book recommendation from Amazon.com (AMZN), or receive your paycheck, a database is doing the heavy lifting. But because getting a database to do anything useful requires some programming skill, a great tool for organizing information has not been available to the vast majority of computer users.
FileMaker, a division of Apple (AAPL), is out to change that with Bento. It's a $50 database for the rest of us—at least those of us who use Macs. Bento takes the essence of FileMaker Pro, a database-management program aimed at small- and midsize businesses, and marries it to Mac's new Leopard operating system. The result is a powerful organizing tool anyone can use.
Just Like iTunes
Most of us have information that would benefit from some structure, whether it is a project at work or plans for a kid's birthday party. And most of us use tools that weren't designed for the job, such as lists in Microsoft (MSFT) Word or Excel spreadsheets.
Bento offers a gentle alternative. In both its design and documentation, Bento avoids off-putting database jargon and cleverly guides users with references to the one database with which most are intimately familiar—the iTunes library.
Instead of using the term "database," Bento calls a collection of data a "library." A subset of the records, or items, in that library, chosen either by manual selection or by a search, is called a collection. The instructions helpfully point out that the concept of a collection is exactly the same as a playlist in iTunes. And as in iTunes, you can have smart collections; whenever a record meeting the criteria is added to the library, it also appears in the collection.
While nearly all the complexity is hidden, Bento meets database standards (and outperforms Excel) in key areas, including data security: Information is saved as soon as it is entered. It also offers sophisticated searches and filtering.
You're the Designer
Three automatically created libraries are the heart of Bento: Address Book, iCal Events, and iCal Tasks. This gives Bento direct access to the information in the Mac's built-in contact and calendar programs. Any changes made by Bento are instantly reflected in the Address Book and iCal applications. (If you use Entourage—the mail, contact, and calendar component of Microsoft Office on the Mac—you can get third-party software to synchronize data between Entourage and iCal and Address Book.)
Say you're managing a small-scale project. By picking names in the Address Book library, either by pointing and clicking, using search criteria, or choosing a category in your contact list, you can create a collection that lists the team responsible for the project. Then you can gather to-do items from iCal Tasks and assign responsibility for each task to a team member.
The data can be displayed in a table, spreadsheet style, or, more usefully, in a form view, which shows the data for a single record. You design the form by dragging and dropping individual fields, such as name and street address, where you want them. Each library or collection can have multiple forms, each showing a different aspect of the data. For example, you might have a view that shows the tasks associated with each team member and another that shows the team members linked to each task.
Bento can also bring in data from a variety of external sources, though spreadsheets are probably the likeliest candidates. The imported information becomes a library that can be combined with other data in the same simple way.
Most nontechie people never think about using databases because they have been so complex. But they are remarkably useful. For Mac users, at least, Bento may finally bring these powerful tools into the mainstream.