Bento: Farewell old friend, you will not be missed too much

Posted on by Mike Evans

Bento, Filemaker's Japanese lunchbox of a database, is no more. I am sad to see it go because it was one of the first Mac applications I bought. In the early days I invested much time in crafting systems for a variety of record keeping tasks. Bento was straightforward, easy to use and pretty. Without doubt my favourite feature was the ability to link with Calendar and Contacts to enable extra fields and statistical information to be added, thus permitting a manipulation of data that is absent from the native applications.

The first blow came last year when Bento abruptly ceased support for Calendar and Contacts integration. My databases were abruptly terminated. All the old stuff was still there but updating had ceased. I had to scramble around for alternatives--there are none--and ended up making more use of the notes fields in both applications. This unstructured information is far less useful and lacks any form of data manipulation. It will have to do until I can find a better hole.

Now Bento is dead and users are being encouraged to migrate to the full-blown FileMaker Pro by the carrot of a discount. However, FileMaker Pro is so expensive that only those with a real need for database systems will swallow the pill. Bento's demise is a symptom of the current lack of interest in customisable databases. Overwhelmingly the trend is towards dedicated storage within individual applications. The proliferation of small, fixed databases seems to have removed the desire to experiment and construct custom systems. We are still using databases, of course, but they are hidden behind the user interface of a thousand popular apps, not forgetting the ubiquitous Calendar and Contacts. Of course spreadsheets such as Excel and numbers are really programmable databases, they just have another name and a different methodology.

Thirty years ago the database was a primary application on any PC. I cut my teeth on dBase II and it is still one of my all-time favourites from the old pre-Windows days. It was very easy to program, even for a dumbo like me, and I was able to automate many functions in the office, from contact records to invoicing. If I could buy dBase II now I would snap it up and have it singing within hours. Unfortunately it was never updated to run in Windows and died with MSDos.

In the past two years I have had little use for Bento. I did keep a few databases current, one to track storage locations of archival material (aka In The Loft). It would tell me to send the minions to the heights to retrieve Box C inside Big Box 2. It was also useful for packing lists and other such record keeping. But my extensive Contacts enhancements and Calendar manipulations had fallen by the wayside. In addition to the shrinking list of abilities and the glacial pace of upgrades, Bento suffered from lack of proper synchronisation between Mac and iOS versions. I had hoped for cloud sync but this never came.

All is not lost, however. I was able to export the records from my Bento databases and then open them in Numbers. Numbers is not quite as flexible because it cannot offer the same data viewing abilities, nor forms, that a good database provides. But, considering my shrunken requirements, it is better than nothing.

Given the apathy of Filemaker, I am not sorry to see Bento disappear from the screen. Yet I do still have a hankering for a programmable database, particularly one that offers reliable cloud synchronisation and an OS X and iOS presence. I hope there is one out there and I just haven't discovered it yet.

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