Feting FileMaker

An estimated 1,400 people are convening in Phoenix this week for FileMaker's annual Developer Conference. Among the items on the agenda: celebrating the database application's 20th anniversary. The application debuted on the PC platform as Nutshell in March 1984. Soon thereafter, Nashoba Systems -- FileMaker's original developer -- began work on a Mac version, which hit the market in early 1985.

FileMaker's landmark seems to have gotten lost amid the celebration for the Mac's 20th anniversary. And that's a shame, though it's hardly surprising. Despite the significant role FileMaker has played in the history of the Mac platform, it often winds up overlooked in favor of flashier programs.

I'm as guilty of this as much as any Mac user. When Macworld celebrated the Mac's 20th anniversary in our February 2004 issue, we included plenty of praise for the usual suspects -- Photoshop, PageMaker, iMovie and so forth -- but only a passing mention of FileMaker. That's a shame, because if you stop to think about it, few programs reflect the same principles behind the Mac's development as well as FileMaker.

When Alan Albert, Dan Chadwick, Spec Bowers, and Jega Arulpargasam started work on what would become FileMaker 20 years ago, the world of database applications was not for the faint of heart. dBase II's user interface was nothing more than a blinking cursor. pfs:File would warn users attempting to alter a field size or location that any change might damage their entire database. Not exactly textbook examples of user-friendliness.

FileMaker set out to be different. "Our goals were largely centered around usability, though these design goals had a big impact on architecture, scalability, and feature choice," Albert told me in an interview for a story that will appear in an upcoming issue of Macworld . "The database we created had to be usable by regular people, not database experts."

Twenty years, and dozens of updates later, that principle still is at play with FileMaker. Yes, FileMaker Pro 7 can do a few more things than the 20-year-old program could. But aside from increased capabilities, the application is still simple enough for anyone to use and scalable enough to grow as your needs and skills dictate.

That may never earn FileMaker a place alongside the Photoshops and the PageMakers of the world in the minds of Mac users. But its place of the pantheon of important Mac apps is unquestioned. So as the FileMaker developer community gathers this week to salute the program, I'd like to take a moment to do likewise.

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