Bento 3's sleeping killer feature

Bento 3, the latest iteration of FileMaker’s rapidly-updating personal database application, offers some very nice eye candy in its new features, as well as some more fundamental usability enhancements users have been asking for. The killer feature for me, however, is barely mentioned in the literature — and gives an important pointer to what the future holds for an increasingly important application.

I’ll leave you on tenterhooks for a moment with that cryptic opening though, and run through the headline features.

First, there’s iPhoto integration. Indeed, more so than integration it’s almost as if iPhoto has been woven into the DNA of Bento 2 and release 3 is the love-child of the two. As well as being able to add photos and albums from iPhoto directly into your bento records as if they were one application, Bento 3 also adds a “Grid View” that will, I’m sure, leave more than one user having to think for a moment to be sure they’re not actually using iPhoto.

Like iPhoto, Grid View allows you to mouse over a record and see all of the files it contains. You might have multiple images associated with a record, and you can run through them all very quickly. Or you may just need to see all of the forms available to you, or get a quick flip view of address cards in your contact list — you get the picture. One rather neat aspect of the iPhoto integration is the ability to add extra data about images that iPhoto doesn’t necessarily allow you to keep. Of course such annotations are only visible from Bento, and don’t alter the metadata in iPhoto.

The iLife similarity doesn’t stop there, though, as Bento adds simple sharing to your databases. As simple to configure as sharing photo albums in iPhoto or libraries in iTunes, Bento’s Sharing feature uses Bonjour and allows you to share a Bento library with up to five users in the same local-area network. As with iPhoto and iTunes’s sharing capabilities though, it doesn’t work over the Internet — if you need to share even simple databases between remote locations, FileMaker still wants you to hit the full-on FileMaker Pro product.

Of course adding sharing means adding the opportunity for other people in your house or office to see stuff on your computer that you may not want them to see, so of course FileMaker has added password protection and encryption to Bento 3.

Oh, and also there’s a nod to those of us for whom a “database” is essentially the same thing as a “list” — a new type of field called Simple List lets you bung a spreadsheet-style table onto a Bento form. No need to know in advance how many columns or rows or how you need the table structured — just slap it in and away you go, edit as needed.

My favourite thing.

But what, I hear you pleading me to let you out of your suspense, is the killer feature I was rabbiting on about in that opening paragraph?

Smart Collections. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound like much. In fact, on FileMaker’s reviewer’s guide it does not make the top ten features in Bento 3. For me, though, it unlocks some real potential.

You see, the really cool thing about Bento is that it allows you to have your contact and calendar information in one place, and link the data together in meaningful ways. Having iCal and Address Book as integral parts of OS X is great, but the fact they are two separate applications limits their utility. Over on Windows, there’s Outlook that handles these functions in a seamlessly integrated way and it’s frustrating for some of us Mac folks to know we don’t have something like that. Bento is an important step.

Of course what Bento doesn’t do that Outlook does is mail. Bento 2 added the ability to add links to Apple Mail messages to Bento records, which was great, but you had to do the linking manually and if you were so organised that you remembered to do that why do you need a database program anyway.

In Bento 3 you can associate criteria with a Smart Collection, and those links to Mail messages are updated automatically. You want to see a list of messages from a particular contact in your Address Book? Easy done in Bento, and in Bento 3 new messages meeting the same criteria will automatically be added.

OK, so that’s cool, but maybe you still don’t see where this is going. Add in another key feature of Bento 3 — one that does make the top ten — group emailing. If you’ve created a collection in Bento that includes email contacts, you can send an email to every member of the group. Right there in Bento.

So imagine you’re doing something like, say, putting together a monthly online magazine. You have a group of contributors sending you stuff all the time and you want to be able to organise it quickly but you’re basically a very scatter-brained person to whom this stuff doesn’t come naturally. With Bento 3you can keep track of all the messages you get from this group of contributors, and you can keep track of all the files — documents, images and so forth — that they send you, and you can send messages out to them. All in one program.

If there was any doubt before that Bento is evolving into OS X’s integrated information manager — our Outlook, but without the sucky interface — there can be none now. It’s not there yet, of course, but have little doubt it will be.

iPhone version.

An update to the Bento iPhone App has also been submitted to Apple but, at this stage, has not yet appeared on the App Store. That’s right, believe it or not, even Apple’s wholly-owned subsidiary has to go through the same approval process as everyone else.

The updated iPhone App supports the encrypted fields and the Simple List field, and has limited support for Smart Collections — they’ll sync with the desktop version of Bento 3, but won’t update automatically on the iPhone or iPod touch because, of course, that would require applications to be able to share each other’s data. Grumble grumble grumble.

The iPhone version also unfortunately doesn’t support the group emailing function, which is a great pity. When will the iPhone support Address Book Groups, Apple?

Tell 'em the price, son.

When Bento 2 came out a mere nine months after the release of Bento, FileMaker got a lot of flak for the lack of an upgrade price, and for the lack of an electronic download version. Both of those criticisms have been met in the new release.

The retail price of Bento is still at the same level, $A79 inc GST. However, users of either previous version of Bento can get a $A25 rebate back from FileMaker. Yes, it would have been better if there were an “upgrade version” that was cheaper, but then retailers have to keep track of an extra stock item and be able to confirm customers’ eligibility for the upgrade price. Instead, the onus is on customers to send in their coupon and they’ll get a money order in the post.

Or, if you take advantage of the electronic download option, you can get the rebate instantly deducted from the purchase price if you’re a Bento 1 or 2 owner.

Keep an ear out for MacThePodcast Episode 17, featuring an interview with Keith Robinson of FileMaker, talking about Bento 3 and the task of keeping up with customers’ wish lists. Also watch for a full review of Bento 3 on MacTheReviews, real soon now.

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