There are exactly two reasons why the iPad has prospered. First, because it was a device that fulfilled for the first time the potential that a lot of people had been looking for since the first green screens flickering on our desks in the 1970s: a truly portable, truly personal computing device that was nice to have and nice to use. Second, because of the huge variety of apps that were obviously better on the iPad than on a phone-sized device, and really did things that people wanted — even if they only wanted them after they’d first seen the app.
Of course, being first to market and being an Apple product has helped, but Apple had a previous foray into the handheld space, with the Apple Newton, now a desirable retro-gadget for those who desire truly retro gadgets. The Newton failed because it failed in exactly the two ways that the iPad succeeded: it was bulky, blocky, underpowered and difficult to use, and there was almost no software for it apart from the software that came as standard. Apple was not the marketing machine then that it is now, but a substantial portion of Apple’s current success stems from only bringing products like the iPad to market, and not selling stuff that either doesn’t work, or has already been done better by someone else.
There’s been a gradual and progressive adoption of iPads in the business world. My first iPad (which I paid for) saved my organisation more than its own cost in not printing out Board papers in the first year alone. As a device to look at your Exchange email on the go, the iPad is significantly better than any Blackberry, and significantly more convenient than any laptop. Still, in these straitened times, a lot of businesses and a lot of IT departments were asking the question: “why should we purchase and support another device — with all the security implications of that — when we’ve already issued people with Blackberrys and Notebooks which more or less do the same thing?”
The iPad had its killer app for the consumer very early on with Flipboard — which turned your ugly collection of RSS, Facebook, twitter and Google feeds into a beautifully formatted bespoke magazine — but until now it has not had anything quite as compelling to tempt the business world.
Last Tuesday saw the release of Filemaker Pro 12, and the iPad companion app Filemaker Go 12. It’s Filemaker Go 12 which is the game changer.
There are two advantages of Go 12 over its predecessor Go 11. They are that it is fast, and that it is free. Those two are enough.
To explain, I need to recap.
Back in the old, old days of personal computing, when you might build for yourself a Nascom 2, or a ZX 81, or a Compukit UK101, or, if you were excessively wealthy and insufficiently geeky, you might purchase an Apple II, a BBC Micro, a Sharp MZ 80K, an Acorn Atom or a Commodore PET, the big question was (as it has been with the iPad) ‘what can you actually do with it that’s useful?’ If you were programming in BASIC, or, heaven help you, Machine Code, then you might be excessively proud (as I was) of your mathematical model, with graphs, of the population growth of a herd of bison on Malthusian principles, but when someone (for example, your mother) suggested that you program a word-processor, or a database, or some such, you would look blank, and scurry back to thinking how possible it would be to make that truly great all-graphics Star Trek game you’d been dreaming about.
The world of personal computing changed with Visicalc, the first spreadsheet. It ran on the Apple II, and it brought Apple IIs straight into the business world. It was a killer application, because there was no parallel for it on the IBM mainframes or the PDP11s. After Visicalc, Wordstar was not far behind, opening up the world of word-processing which is still — if you accept that your email client is a hybrid word-processor and communications application the second most popular application on computers (after web surfing, naturally). But these two applications meant that the thrust of personal computing changed forever from being about programs you wrote yourself to being about software you bought and used for a particular purpose.
Which left databases in a bit of a limbo. Although simple contacts managers and calendars have been a mainstay of ‘productivity’ apps from the first days of PC-DOS on the IBM PC, a useful database is something you set up and program yourself based on the particular task you have at hand. It’s an uneasy hinterland, because lots of businesses could benefit from a bespoke database, but very few could afford the cost of having one developed and maintained. The bigger and more complex they got — through to the multi-million pound Data Warehouses we used when I was in the automotive industry — the harder it was to get them ever doing what it was you wanted them to do.
For any kind of big business, the only way to assure your data was to get a team of programmers in. Even then it was a bit hit and miss, until companies like Oracle started offering a combination of service and framework. Oracle has done well out of it. For a small business, if you were a bit geeky you could go with Jim Button’s shareware database system PC-File, or you could try your hand at dBase or Paradox. We ran a big-to-us-but-small-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things database back in the late ’80s, using a dBase compatible version of PC-File. It was ok for flat files, but once we introduce relationality, it took the entire night to recalculate, based on our 4,000 or so entries, which was just the Belgian branch of a charity’s mailing list. From there we moved on to Borland Paradox. The database got faster, developing it got slower and slower.
Eventually, the database-you-can-make-yourself-and-it-actually-work market coalesced around two products. For Windows, it was Microsoft Access, which came as part of the Office Professional bundle. For the Mac, it was Filemaker Pro. Access was reasonably powerful, reasonably easy to use (compared with Paradox) and reasonably flexible. Filemaker was — at the time — less powerful, extremely easy to use, and less flexible than Access. Then Claris, the Apple subsidiary that offered it, seemed to move up a gear. They started offering full relationality, dramatically more graphical flexibility, and, crucially, the ability to run on Windows machines.
Since then — it was 1996 if I recall — both Filemaker and Access have languished in the nether world where Microsoft Project sits. They’ve never become standards like Word—PowerPoint—Excel has, but they’ve never been overtaken. Most of the web runs on MySQL databases, which follow IBM’s Structured Query Language protocol, but no-one normal would ever claim that MySQL, or anything to do with SQL, is easy to use for the casual user. Access and Filemaker have large development communities behind them, fiercely loyal, and yet conscious that the world has been moving on without them.
Filemaker clearly became aware that its product, which has for a long time offered enterprise-level server architecture through Filemaker Server, web-publishing and runtime versions, had got so powerful that it was no longer the ‘my first database’ software that just about anyone might pick up for a few quid and have a go. Their response was Bento, a visually appealing ‘my-first-database’ product which fits in under the £50 radar. Bento is a great product for personal use, whether it be organising your collection of 273 Russian dolls or planning your wedding, but it’s not meant to be a business application. You can get Bento on the iPad, and it works well with your desktop version — as long as you aren’t looking for too much.
So, this all comes back round to Filemaker’s release of Filemaker Go 12 last week, alongside Filemaker Pro 12.
In essence, Filemaker had grown to the point where you can use it to very quickly construct a visually appealing solid App, which doesn’t just gather and store data, but does all kinds of things with it, so that the user doesn’t have the feeling they are using a database, but just using something that does what they want it to do. Brilliant — but, until now, deploying such an App was a bit of a business. The Filemaker Go 11 app which allowed you to run a Filemaker database on the iPad was expensive — at $40 one of the most expensive apps out there — sluggish, and didn’t have the full functionality of the desktop version. Most particularly, it didn’t do charts. What’s more, it was hard to design your database on the desktop so that it looked good and felt good on the iPad. The whole thing was just too much of a bother unless you had a very, very compelling business reason to pursue that path rather than, say, get a proper App programmed (£7,000-£28,000, but quick, reliable and resellable), or go down a non-iPad path, such as a web-based MySQL solution that would run equally — and equally badly — on any web browser.
Filemaker Go 12 changes everything. For the £200 entry fee into the Filemaker world — unless you want to do it all on the 30 day trial, which might just be long enough — you can now create any app you like in Filemaker on your Mac or PC, and sell or give it to anyone you like, without going through the App Store, and without having to pay a developer license or the vastly more expensive enterprise license which allows you to just deploy your app to your own company — essential if you are using it as part of your bespoke business process.
The designing of app-ready databases is already much easier: gone are the clunky, 20th century Filemaker layouts which were hard to improve unless you spent a lot of time fiddling with borders or writing XML. Instead, we have a set of iPad and iPhone ready themes which swap at the click of a mouse. They look gorgeous, they are easy to use, and, crucially, they have the same sleek feel as Apple’s own iPad and iPhone apps — unsurprising, since Filemaker is still owned by Apple. Within the limitations of the device, Go does pretty much everything that desktop Filemaker does, and the desktop version has a lot of help to ensure that you know what will and what won’t work, how things will respond, and exactly how to position things for the rotating iPad or iPhone interface.
What’s more, other app makers are already beginning to support it. There’s already a Filemaker Pro barcode reader on the app store, and more things are promised.
Where does this all leave us? 100,000 people downloaded Filemaker Go in the first week, which means that 100,000 people must have downloaded the Filemaker 12 desktop version demo, or bought it outright, because without that you can’t make Go 12 files. With the two, you can have your business database on the iPad within moments, if it’s currently Filemaker Pro based. If you don’t currently have a database system that you like, you can get your collection of Excel spreadsheets into Filemaker and looking good within four hours, and have them as fully functioning relational apps on the iPad just a few minutes after that. Because Filemaker is highly scriptable, you can have it running an App that has essentially no database components. It will run a bit slower than a bespoke app, though in most cases not noticeably, because Go 12 is several times faster than Go 11 was, and you can do it after an evening of scripting, and no waiting for it to go through the App store for approval.
For businesses, the possibilities are limitless — and very economical. The iPad’s killer business app has arrived.
- FileMaker’s new iOS apps hit 100K downloads in one week (tuaw.com)
- Apple subsidiary FileMaker releases new version of its flagship product, makes iOS version free (9to5mac.com)
- Filemaker 12 released; Filemaker Go now free on iOS (zdnet.com)
- FileMaker Go for iPad (ipadnotebook.wordpress.com)
- Filemaker 12 offers free iOS clients, better support for mobile business apps (arstechnica.com)
- iOS Review: FileMaker Go 12 seamlessly works with FileMaker Pro 12 for Mac (macworld.com)
- Review: New themes in FileMaker Pro 12 make it easy to create databases (macworld.com)