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FileMaker History
Level: N/A
Category: General
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Information regarding the early history of FileMaker is adapted from an interview with Spec Bowers by Glenn C. Koenig. Glenn is a FileMaker developer and generalist who lives and works in Arlington, Massachusetts. His business is Dancing-Data. Recent history is written from my knowledge of the industry.

The rolodexes from FileMaker 1.0, FileMaker Plus, FileMaker Pro 1.0, FileMaker Pro 5.5, FileMaker Pro 7.0 and FileMaker Pro 15.

FileMaker History

The history of FileMaker dates back to the early 1980s with four people who originally worked at Wang Laboratories. Spec Bowers, Alan Albert, Dan Chadwick and Jega Arulpragasam wanted to develop new products but the Wang Labs didn’t foster this type of creativity with their political culture. This is quite different from the culture of most technology companies these days, which encourage or even require creativity.

Spec and Dan attended a computer conference. In those days, computer conferences for businesses concentrated on mini computers and larger. Outside the hall there was a tent that had a small section devoted to PCs. They looked around and saw that a number of other companies were already working on word processing products. They concluded that it would be too hard to break into that market.

So they looked at database software. In their opinion, the existing databases were just awful. dBase was one of them. The user interface was a prompt that was a single dot at the left edge of the screen. You had to know all the commands and type them in correctly to do anything. The records were all fixed format, with fields of fixed length and type. You had to decide everything ahead of time and once you started entering data, the design of your database was essentially frozen in place. You couldn't change anything after that.
They knew what a good user interface looked like from working at Wang, so they decided to make something better and formed Nashoba Systems. It started out in their own homes. Before long, they rented space in a building in Concord, Massachusetts.
Spec Bowers came up with the initial design concepts:


- fields are variable length, you can enter as much data as you want

- every word in every field is indexed

- you can add fields at any time or delete them

- you can display your data in different layouts

- the user interface would be menu driven (a mouse came later)

- it would have good performance on even very large databases

- initially, it would support date, number, text, and calculation field types

Those were the basic important characteristics. The first product was named "Nutshell." They developed it and marketed it through a company called "Leading Edge". Leading Edge marketed PC clones and software at the time.

FileMaker History

Soon after they had Nutshell on the market, the Macintosh was introduced. But Leading Edge refused to sell to the Macintosh market so when Nashoba developed a version for the Macintosh, they had to use a different name. They came up with FileMaker. People who saw FileMaker later on would say "this looks a lot like Nutshell," but because of the different name, most people didn't know that it was essentially the same product.

They were close to finishing FileMaker when suddenly Microsoft released Microsoft File. It looked pretty good, so they were nervous. But they went ahead and released FileMaker in 1985. Microsoft started out being the big seller. Within a year, FileMaker was neck and neck. After 2 more years, FileMaker outsold MS File and Microsoft took their product off the market. Somehow the ordinary person looked at the products and saw the difference.

FileMaker 1.0 had calculation fields but no functions, just arithmetical operators. Only one file could be opened at a time!

FileMaker History

FileMaker started to do well right from the beginning because of good design and marketing and almost no other competition on the Mac side, whereas Leading Edge didn't market Nutshell very well. The competition on the PC side was dBase, PFS (which was the number 1 or 2 publisher at the time - PFS: Word, PFS: File PFS: Numbers, etc.), and several established products.

A company called Forethought marketed FileMaker. They had a great relationship with Forethought, even though it started out slowly. There were times when both Nashoba and Forethought went through financial difficulties. So Jega came up with an idea when it looked like Forethought was in big trouble. They changed the agreement for publishing to be more like a "partnership" in a way. It succeeded and they went on to be the best selling database. Spec thinks that this ought to be a lesson to teach at Harvard Business School.

They decided to track the names of Macintosh products when naming successive versions of FileMaker. When Apple came out with the Mac Plus, they named the next version "FileMaker Plus." When Apple introduced the Mac II, they called it "FileMaker II."

FileMaker History

FileMaker Plus saw the debut of the first scripting. It was a single dialog with check boxes to automate reports. It was rudimentary compared to the prowess of scripting these days. Auto-Enter was also introduced and more than one file could be opened at the same time.

FileMaker History

They were doing $6 million worth of business in 1986 or early 1987. Then Microsoft bought Forethought. Microsoft probably thought they were going to get the rights to market FileMaker in the deal (Microsoft has a history of trying to purchase FileMaker throughout the years, even when Claris owned it as subsidiary of Apple, Inc). Spec says that if they thought that, then they had awful lawyers. They got PowerPoint out of it, even though it hadn't much of a track record (even that category wasn't big yet). Perhaps Microsoft reasoned that Nashoba systems, a smaller company without a publisher, would have no place else to go. But Nashoba still had the rights to FileMaker.

So they had to decide what to do. Should they sell to Microsoft anyway? Perhaps find another publisher? Self publish? Microsoft offered them a royalty deal of $75,000 a month. But FileMaker was a #1 product, making $6 million a year, even without the Microsoft label. So Nashoba declined the offer. Eventually, they decided to self publish.

Of course, the product would be off the market for awhile while they geared up. It was kind of scary. They hired some of the marketing people from Forethought. Based on their previous contract with Forethought, Nashoba only had rights to the software itself, not the documentation or the packaging! So after a big crash effort to write documentation from scratch, they had to put the rest of the product together. They decided to name it "FileMaker 4." They had to make decisions about all those little things you find in the package when you buy software. What about warranty reply cards? What kind of box? How about package design? License wording? It was pretty scary to do it all in such a short time frame. In spite of all this, it went back to #1 in the market.

FileMaker History

Then a new problem arose. They had hired a marketing VP from Forethought who wanted to be president of the company. It was almost like extortion. The four co-founders were split 2-2 on the promotion. Eventually, one of the founders gave in and they promoted him. Within a few months the morale at Nashoba had gone downhill badly. At this time, all the marketing was still in California and the technical people were here in Massachusetts. The president and California office staff took control of the documentation, of the technical support, and everything else and told the founders to just be good little geeks and go write the code.

Back in Concord, their 13 employees dwindled down to 6 people within 6 months. Two of the original founders quit as well. Spec was one of them. But each founder still owned almost a 1/4th of the company each.

Shortly after that, Claris approached them and asked if they could buy FileMaker. By now, there was enough support among the founders to vote to do this. It turned out that Claris didn't like dealing with Nashoba's new President, either! He kept adding conditions to the deal. But the deal survived and Claris got the product.

The only thing that changed from FileMaker 4 (Nashoba) to FileMaker II (Claris) was the splash screen.

FileMaker History

Claris began using conventional version numbers instead of varying the name of the product, so version 1.0 was Claris's first version. Since Apple wanted Claris to appear in the market as a stand alone software brand name, they were trying to make PC (DOS & Windows) versions of all their products, so it was under Claris that FileMaker was first expanded to run under Windows. Claris couldn't update Nutshell and sell that instead because they had no rights to it and by now FileMaker was a much more well recognized name.

Claris was a wholly owned subsidiary of Apple Computer. Later, Apple dissolved Claris and set up FileMaker, Inc. which had only two products: FileMaker and HomePage. The other products with the Claris name reverted to the Apple brand name (e.g. ClarisWorks became AppleWorks), were discontinued (such as MacWrite, MacDraw, etc.) or sold (Claris Organizer was sold to Palm). FileMaker, Inc. dropped support for HomePage a few years later and now just develops and markets FileMaker, FileMaker Go and FileMaker Server.

At the time of this interview, Spec remarked that some of the features they thought of 15 years ago still weren't in the product (as of version 6.0). Cross Tabs still weren't in the product. You still couldn't summarize horizontally and vertically at the same time. Also, if there was a way to import a ".pdf" file (Adobe Acrobat) into a layout, such as an IRS form, that would be great!

Spec and his colleagues were indeed visionaries and the reason why FileMaker is so strong today. Just looking at the screen shots on the previous pages, you can tell how many great features were always there from the beginning.

However, there are plenty of features Spec didn’t imagine in the current incarnation of FileMaker that have catapulted FileMaker into the most popular database in the world. With FileMaker Pro, FileMaker Advanced, FileMaker Server and FileMaker Go, there is no better database for rapid development than the FileMaker family of products. FileMaker Pro is the workhorse that can do it all from design to deployment. FileMaker Pro Advanced adds developer level features like a script debugger, encryption and Custom Functions. FileMaker Server allows for workgroup level scalability, automated backups and web technology for multi-user solutions. Rounding out the product line, FileMaker Go takes your FileMaker data remote on iPhones and iPads. Never before has FileMaker been so powerful!

I also want to shout out to another FileMaker visionary, Christopher Crim. Chris almost single handedly programmed some of your favorite features. He created Set Field and developed FileMaker Go during his sabbatical. To say he shaped FileMaker is an understatement. Thanks to Chris, features nobody even dreamed about are now a part of the core functionality of modern day FileMaker.

Author:
John Mark Osborne
jmo@filemakerpros.com
www.databasepros.com

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Comments:

Douglas Alder 04/11/2017
  Great article with a number of details I hadn't seen elsewhere. For those who like their history in a timeline format, click on my name.
William Porter 03/11/2017
  Thanks for this excellent history, JMO! I was using HyperCard in the late '80s/early '90s and didn't pick up FileMaker until v2 in 1992 (partly because HyperCard was out or on the way out at the time). Enjoyed reading your review of what I missed!
Response by:   John Mark Osborne
I was a big HyperCard user back in the late 80s to early 90s too! I remember making the first knowledge base for Apple Customer Support, using HyperCard, when they opened up their first 800 toll free number. It really helped the department do their work efficiently! When I got to Claris technical support, they had a mature knowledge base called TechInfo that was a lifesaver every day.
Sarah 02/27/2017
  Thank you for the response. I don't know Clay or Jon (yet), but am thankful FileMaker is investing in ongoing development!
Scott Cardais 02/27/2017
  Thanks for this. The stories behind the companies are always interesting.
Response by:   John Mark Osborne
I agree. Only wish there was more information available. The Nashoba guys did show up at recent DevCon but I never got a chance to talk to them. If anyone has any more information, feel free to post here or contact me via email.
Sarah 02/24/2017
  This is really interesting, thanks for taking the time to document this history! Where is Christopher Crim today? With FileMaker?
Response by:   John Mark Osborne
You are most welcome! Glad you enjoyed it! Since Chris left FMI in 2010, I haven't kept in touch with him. I think he retired but I'm not sure. Other chief development architect gurus such as Clay Maeckel and Jon Thatcher are still coding FileMaker releases.

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