Despite FileMaker, iWork is baseless

If Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices group (responsible for Xbox, Zune and Surface computing) is a little Apple within Microsoft, than, FileMaker, Inc. is probably the closest thing to a little Microsoft within Apple. It is a traditional — and profitable — software company developing a mature and well-regarded (by users if not professional database developers) cross-platform application for the Mac and Windows.

FileMaker, following some tricky version names early in its history (FileMaker 4 preceded FileMaker II — don’t ask), is now in its ninth major version. It is the last remains of what was once Apple’s in-house and almost spun-out software company Claris. In the early ’90s, Claris offered, among other products, the MacWrite Pro word processor and the Resolve spreadsheet, a revamped version of the presentation-friendly WingZ. FileMaker has long found an audience among Windows users who find Access cold and technical compared to its friendly layout-driven approach.

You almost never hear about FileMaker at Apple keynotes and, apart from some subtle visual cues on its home page, you’d find it hard to guess that the company was owned by Apple. Perhaps Apple keeps it around as a kind of laboratory, so it can better understand the needs of a cross-platform developer in the real world. Perhaps it considers FileMaker a hedge against Access, which will probably never come to the Mac. What FileMaker isn’t, though, at least for now, is the database component of iWork, which is still missing that component.

That’s not too much of a surprise. FileMaker’s user interface, which must accommodate Mac and PC users, isn’t like the rest of the iWork products or the cross-platform iTunes or Safari. When Steve Jobs announced the Numbers spreadsheet this week, he referred to the spreadsheet as “completing” the iWork suite.

When I asked him whether we’d see more work from Apple or FileMaker on integration between iWork and FileMaker, he said only that what we saw in iWork was what we would get in iWork. Literally, that doesn’t say much, but if one reads between the lines, it could mean that there will be no database component for iWork. Does a productivity suite need a database? Not for the average user, these days. Access is now included only in the Professional version of Office 2007, not the standard or “home and student” edition. Corel’s WordPerfect Office also includes Paradox – its database with roots in DOS – only in its professional edition. So FileMaker clearly has a marketplace gap into which it can tap.

Lotus SmartSuite, the all-but-forgotten package from IBM includes the once highly-acclaimed Approach database. And OpenOffice includes a database, too. AppleWorks, the predecessor of iWork, also had a basic database, as does Microsoft Works (where it is buried under an array of home productivity features).

Despite Apple believing that iWork is now “complete”, I’d still like to see iWork gain access to a subset of FileMaker’s features optimized for a Mac-only experience.

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