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9/17/2012
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Homegrown Databases: Alive, Well, and Mobile

If you need an app to do something specific, sometimes it makes sense to "bring your own database." FileMaker and QuickBase, among others, are moving accessible database app builders to the mobile world.

Custom database software tools such as FileMaker Pro, Paradox, and Foxpro carry the stigma of a lone power user in 1999 building a custom departmental database that no one else could touch. Eventually these small databases were either retired or merged into the scope of IT's responsibility.

Although Paradox and Foxpro have all but disappeared, FileMaker Pro and many others have adapted to the changing computer landscape in the last decade. They are mobile-and-browser-based, drag-and-drop apps that empower ordinary users to build personal, team, and enterprise applications.

But do we need to spend resources building custom mobile apps when Apple and Google already offer hundreds of thousands of apps that could do essentially the same thing? In other words, what new process could an employee create that hasn't been already created? Once you understand just how detailed these apps can get, then you understand the need for customizable database software. In fact, you start to envision applications everywhere.

For example, during a company's Windows migration from XP to Windows 7, when virtually all departments are working on the Windows 7 push, team members would connect to a customized customer support ticket app that runs on an iPad and desktops. In real time, resources could be coordinated and deployed according to changing needs. The company might find that floor support is spending far more time than anticipated on changing the new desktop screen resolution instead of training. Desktop support would then create some registry keys to deploy those changes and floor support could get back to training.

The app doesn't displace the company's existing trouble ticket software. It just bottles it for that project. A smaller IT department--say a department of one--might build such an app just for himself to document changes and fixes. Many of us are managing large amounts of data like this in spreadsheets or word processing tables when a database would perform this function much better.

A common use of custom apps is a document management app built for an event. For example, a sales team attends a convention where it will both present to an audience and meet with potential customers. The content management app writer builds a mini-content management system for the event, including the schedule, travel and accommodations, presentations, sales kits, and checklists. But it could also include LinkedIn photos and biographies of each customer. It's an app built for a three-day event that can be modified even as the sales team is boarding the plane.

FileMaker icon
These are specific instances demonstrating the advantages of "bring your own tech." And when we try to communicate the benefits of consumerization to executives, we talk up the fact that mobile and cloud increases productivity. But other than opening a shared Google Doc on an iPad, what does that really mean? Applications such as FileMaker and Intuit QuickBase empower average employees to build and support detailed mobile apps.

FileMaker, which has been with Apple virtually from the start, is two products. The first is Bento, a solo user database strictly for Mac and iOS, similar in simplicity to Keynote or Pages. The second is FileMaker Pro, which is the business product line with a client side for building, deploying, and hosting the apps.

Users access the information on the desktop or iOS with FileMaker Go, or in a browser on Windows 8, Windows Phone, or Android devices.

The IT department is involved only on the back end to host the data. But there are other options for hosting, such as keeping it on the desktop or hosting it on a cloud server such as Amazon E2. There are scores of companies that can host databases.

Though nearly all the application instances employees build are database-centric, FileMaker de-emphasizes the term "database" in favor of calling them apps. "It's funny, people are thinking differently about it [databases] these days," Ryan Rosenberg, VP of marketing and services for FileMaker told me. "Not too many people say, 'I want a database.' If--say a law firm--creates an app for jury evaluation, what they'll do is have their data on an iPad, do the evaluation, come back and centralize that data with the team. They're not thinking that it's a database even though that's the technology behind it. They think they're using an app."

QuickBase, which has been part of Intuit since 1999, started as a Web-based platform so business could collaborate via the Internet.

The 2012 version is a crowd-sourced, collaborative app builder that lets inexperienced users start with a library of templates for the most commonly built applications. More-experienced users build a database from scratch with form builders, by importing a spreadsheet from Excel or any delimited text file. QuickBase also has an open API for developers.

QuickBase offers the same fundamentals as FileMaker Pro, but the architecture is wholly different. QuickBase assumes the responsibility for the database, which is stored on the company's servers in Quincy, Wash.

Although FileMaker Pro has a desktop program and an iOS app, QuickBase is strictly browser based and crowd sourced, meaning others can co-author the database. A FileMaker database can be local. On QuickBase, it must be in the cloud.

The pricing is also different. FileMaker Pro installs on a Windows or Mac and retails for $299, or $179 for an upgrade. QuickBase is a subscription service starting at $299 per month for unlimited support.

This year, both FileMaker and QuickBase have pushed hard into the arena of custom database apps for mobile. In January, QuickBase introduced a view-only preview of mobile QuickBase and in April it added the ability to insert and edit records directly in the mobile site. FileMaker introduced FileMaker Go 12 in April 2012.

Although there is no official version number or announcement, QuickBase is scheduled for a big release with UI changes next month. This update will improve drag and dropping and other ease-of-use features, according to customer support specialist Eliza Elmer.

FileMaker Pro and Intuit are just two lightweight customizable databases. There are many others, such as Caspio, Zoho Creator, Viravis, Grubba, and, of course, Access.

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