When you've been creating and selling the same application for 20 years -- the most successful database on the Mac platform, and a contender on Windows -- and you're a wholly owned subsidiary of Apple, Inc. with plenty of customers in business, education and SOHO markets... well, what do you do for an encore?

FileMaker Inc. has a pretty good market with the namesake app, but as the Mac universe grows to include more families, independent professionals and first-time switchers, the full power and cost of a relational database may be more than these new Mac users need (and might actually be more scary than appealing, despite FM's legendary ease of use). Time for a light, personal-organizer version of that FileMaker power -- an iData, if you will. It's coming in January, for Leopard users only, and it's called Bento. (That's Backup.app on the left and Butler on the right. Hi, I'm Mike, and I'm a Cover Flowaholic.) Bento will cost $49 for a single-user license, with a $99 family 5-pack option.

The idea of the bento box -- one-stop lunching, with compartments for the individual bits of yummy -- gives you a basic sense of the product. With contact, calendar, tabular/relational data and media file embedding, Bento can serve as a basic organizer or a reasonably savvy database, with a lot of room in the middle. For those with long memories who are saying "Hey, wasn't there already some Mac databasey-thing called Bento?" -- yep, that was the name of OpenDoc's native file format (thanks Christina for the tip).

Bento's time-limited preview version is available now for download; it expires in February after the on-sale date. We got a brief advance look (more details below) and there's a screenshot gallery for you to enjoy, but you'll best grok Bento by getting a copy and playing with it.

The first thing you're likely to notice is that this is a Leopard-happy app indeed; fields slide around each other, panes and windows scootch and splash away... do you smell what the Core Animation is cooking? Equally Leopard-riffic, although less splashy, is Bento's ability to directly display contact and calendar information from Address Book and iCal. This isn't an import or a sync, but the true live data from the PIM apps via their new APIs in 10.5. There's also Time Machine and Advanced Find support baked-in.

Since this is a relational database under the hood, those contacts, tasks and appointments can all be linked and interwoven with your other data. Got a party to plan or a lending list to manage? Contacts flow in from Address Book, RSVPs via a checkbox, and gifts received/thank you notes written are easily added on or imported via CSV. You can create new records and layouts in Bento with ease, and the preconfigured templates have a clear iWork feel to them; there are more than 20 preset 'library' types (what you might call a database in FileMaker speak, but remember, database = scary). If you want to collect records from multiple libraries: that's a collection, which you can create statically or via a smart folder-style search.

While Bento takes the majority of its look and feel cues from the iWork apps, there's a thread of iTunes running through it as well. Considering that a good chunk of PC-to-Mac switchers have already familiarized themselves with the iTunes Tao, this is a clever approach. The library templates are dynamically modifiable; it may feel a little strange to be dragging and dropping columns and address zones around, but it's definitely appealing once you play with it a bit. The tabular data features are basic but they cover day-to-day needs (summing columns, etc.) quite well.

There are some obvious areas for improvement in this preview version; my major missing link would be stronger integration with Mail, since so much personal information management gets routed via email. Import/export is limited to text files, so the upgrade path to full FileMaker is not that smooth.

There are plenty of specialized apps that could handle either the PIM layer or the information and asset management tasks with more aplomb, but that's not the point of Bento. For those still hanging on to AppleWorks databases (you know who you are), or the folks who could benefit from a bit more organizational oomph without the cost and learning curve of FileMaker or other power apps, you might sample Bento and like the taste.

This article was originally published on Tuaw.
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