- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009

When is a $5 iPhone application not worth $5? When it’s the new Bento for iPhone from FileMaker Inc., the Apple Inc. subsidiary.

Wrapping your head around the idea of a “personal” database might seem a challenge, let alone one for your iPhone. Compete Inc., a marketing consultancy in Boston, said in an April 27 report that “the four most commonly downloaded applications, by category, for iPhone users were Games (79 percent), Entertainment (78 percent), Weather (57 percent), and Music (55 percent).” Business applications, so-called “productivity tools,” were way down on the list.

So, why a database application for the iPhone? Because we all have databases, whether we acknowledge them or not. Got a list of everything in your house, you know, in case it burns down and you need to file an insurance claim? That’s a database. Tracking sailboats for a potential purchase? Another database. Got a wish list of desired acquisitions for your comic book collection or your music library? You get the idea.

Many of us rely on databases far more than just casual access: We’re selling (or buying) real estate or antiques. We’re tracking candidates for a job, or employers to approach. We need to have this information on hand wherever we might be, thus the need for portability, and the potential for something such as Bento for the iPhone.

On regular Apple Macintosh computers, Bento (which, yes, is named for the iconic boxed Japanese lunches) is a simplified database, one in which you can combine photos and text boxes and other elements to make a whole, as it were. Not only can you list a house for sale, but you also show its picture, do some calculations and total things up, in an elementary fashion. The makers bill it as a “compliment” to a spreadsheet program such as Apple’s Numbers or Microsoft Corp.’s Excel 2008 for Macintosh.

So far, so good: Many of us are database people whether or not we realize it, and Bento is a good way of helping Mac users track these things. But unless you’re schlepping a notebook computer around, there will be a time you’ll be somewhere without that data.

Hence the iPhone version of Bento, which also runs on the iPod Touch model from Apple. The software sells for $4.99 in the iTunes App Store and installs quickly and easily. It’s designed to work with data from the Mac’s Address Book application, and some data from the iCal calendaring program.

Here’s where things start to break down, in my opinion. How long they’ll stay “broken” is an open guess: This summer is expected to see the launch of Apple’s iPhone 3.0 operating software (and perhaps a new iPhone model), with many improvements in the iPhone’s operations.

For now, we’re stuck with the almost year-old iPhone 2.0 software and with Apple’s restrictions on the Address Book and iCal applications. Other programs for the iPhone, even other programs from the wholly owned FileMaker Inc. unit of Apple, can’t “talk” to elements of the Address Book and iCal, per the parent company’s dictates, and can’t totally supplant Address Book’s database and sync functions.

Why is that a problem? Because a key feature of Bento for iPhone is its ability to sync data from the phone to a computer, and back again, via an 802.11 wireless, or Wi-Fi, connection. If I can’t update the Address Book file in Bento on my desktop and have it change when synchronizing with the iPhone, why bother having the software?

Right now, the best answer I can come up with - based on testing the program and talking with FileMaker’s Jon Siegler, vice president of product management - is that future versions of the Bento for iPhone program (and, by implication, Address Book) might allow such synchronizations. Also, Apple’s Mobile Me service, a $99-per-year add-on for Mac users, has its own way of synchronizing Address Books, Mr. Siegler pointed out, and that can bridge the gap.

No, it’s not perfect. I’d rather see the one of the most-touted uses of Bento for iPhone - the ability to have, manage and expand your Address Book more easily - fully synchronized.

But change may yet come this summer, and hope springs eternal, as the saying goes. For now, if you need a hand-held way to track your inventory of Faberge eggs, this application is a good idea - but that’s about it, in my view.

• What are you cataloging? E-mail mkellner@washington times.com.