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AskTog, Summer 2009

Bento Schmento

Apple needs to do a little housecleaning over at their little hobby-company called Filemaker.

(I call it a “hobby-company” because “hobby” is Apple’s code word for “we don’t really care about this thing, but we’re not quite ready to kill it.” You know, like their “hobby” Apple TV product.)

The Filemaker database is pretty OK for a product with an interface designed in 1985. It’s powerful, it works cross-platform and a lot of customers are tied into it.

Who’s talking?

Bruce Tognazzini was hired at Apple by Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin in 1978, where he remained for 14 years, founding the Apple Human Interface Group.  He remains a major Apple fan, which is why, when they could do better, he feels compelled to talk about it.

Bento is something different. Really different. It is trying to be a front-end for two of Apple’s core products, iCal and Mail, as well as being a database. The problem is that there is already a front end on iCal and Mail. Adding a second one as a $50 add-on is only confusing. (They finally got around to having Bento on the iPhone, a year late, but with no encryption or any other sort of protection, ensuring easy access for footpads and highwaymen. Sigh.)

It’s time to fire the Bento designers. This team doesn’t belong at Filemaker, the stodgiest, most resource-strapped company on the planet. They are just causing confusion.

The firings should take place on a Friday, per tradition, preferably in front of a long weekend, such as the 4th of July. That will give the designers time to reflect on the folly of trying to move a company being starved for resources into the 21st century all by themselves while, at the same time, fixing Apple’s growing interface problems.

This brief interlude will also give them time to rest up for what will happen Tuesday.

Tuesday, Apple should hire the lot of them at twice their current salary. It should simultaneously wrestle control of Bento from their StodgieWare subsidiary. The Bento designers should then be empowered, not to create a parallel interface to Apple’s aging effort, but to put in place a proper replacement.

The Bento designers are perhaps the best in the business. That Apple has stood by so long just watching as they fail for lack of control and lack of resources is criminal. The Bento designers have designed and tried their best to get implemented a fully-integrated calendaring/contact/general-purpose-database solution that is far superior to anything I’ve seen on the market. It’s certainly better than what Apple is limping along with now with such silly hacks as putting notes inside of mail, then offering no way to organize those notes, per Apple's Flatland edict. (Ever tried to slog through more than 300 notes in a linear list, looking for the one you want? Not fun. And don’t tell me to use Search: If I remembered what I was looking for, I wouldn’t need the note, would I? I need folders—structure—a necessity for browsing.)

What the Bento design team has lacked is the position to effect change at Apple, as well as expanded programming resources to build their design out, covering all functionality of Apple’s core applications and making the database secure enough for practical use. Apple’s Macintosh team, also highly talented, has been even more resource-strapped due to Apple’s concentration on their i-somethingorothers. Having two undersized development teams duplicating each other’s efforts is madness. Bring aboard the Bento designers and you bring aboard an updated, fully-integrated design for Apple’s core functionality. Bring aboard the Bento programming team at the same time and you ensure that the Macintosh development team will once again have sufficient design and programming resources to stay out in front.

For those of you with access to either a Mac or an iPhone/iPod Touch, I urge you to get a copy of Bento and play with it. Not only does it make laying out a new database accessible to normal people, a feat in and of itself, it actually makes doing so fun. Now, that’s brilliant design! Moreover, the close integration they have achieved between calendaring, contacts, and a wealth of database possibilities has the potential to result in a first-class challenger to Outlook. It would take a few years to gain the full power of Outlook, but the effort would be launched with Bento’s current interface and tightness of integration already in place. Add in Notes, tie the whole thing in with Mail, iPhoto, and a proper successor to iTunes, and Apple will have the potential to leave one of Microsoft’s key applications in the dust.

Bento is a lovely, if doomed, piece of work. It deserves more, this development team deserves more, and Apple needs more. It’s time for Apple to move.


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