Airtable - A Database Application for the Rest of Us

I mentioned in my last blog entry that, in the last few months, I have been too busy at work to take time to write any articles for this website.  However, that doesn't mean that I've been "offline" from my digital world during this time.  In fact, during this recent period of intensity at work, I discovered a fascinating new tool that is now available to anyone looking to fill what I believe is a void in the currently available productivity suites we all use daily at work and at home.

Most every office worker has a working familiarity with the typical trio of office productivity tools that consist of a word processor, spreadsheet program and presentation tool.  In the Windows world, that would be Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint (known as the Microsoft Office suite).  In the browser world, it's often Google Docs, and in the Apple world, it's Pages, Numbers and Keynote.  However, in my view, none of these office suites handles very well the small-scale data management needs that arise every day in our work and personal lives.  Sure, a spreadsheet provides the ability to build lists in the typical grid format, but it was never designed from the ground up to deal well with textual data, images and documents, and then filter, sort and view it easily. 

Some may say that we already have database products available to address these needs (Microsoft Access on the PC side or Filemaker on the Mac side).  However, my experience is that the learning curve (and often the price) for such solutions can present a formidable obstacle for most users.  To be accessible and useful "for the rest of us", database applications need to be relatively easy to use and have a "low barrier to entry", meaning that these data management tools must not require a significant initial time commitment (or programming skills) to produce results that make your work or home life more productive and/or enjoyable.

Over the years, I have spent quite a bit of time and effort exploring and using database software designed for the Mac environment, everything from FileMaker, to Panorama, to 4th Dimension, to Bento (the now deceased progeny of FileMaker which was rolled out in 2007 in an attempt to address the database needs of the average user).  During this period, I also used a host of custom database applications designed for managing everything from home inventories to genealogy.  However, it's been quite a while since I've found any data management application that has promised to offer a "better mousetrap". 

So a few weeks ago, I happened to be viewing the latest episode of the monthly video-based magazine ScreencastsOnline, one of my favorite resources for new ideas and software in the Apple ecosphere, and low and behold, Don McAllister (the founder and primary author of ScreencastsOnline) rolls out a two-part series on Airtable, a relatively new (to me) database application that Don described as one of the more exciting things he's seen in quite a while.  I wholeheartedly agree.  For more about ScreencastsOnline, see my Resources page.

Airtable is a web-based, mobily-accessible, collaborative relational database application that was launched last year by a San Francisco startup known as Formagrid.  Interestingly, one of Airtable's angel investors is the actor, Ashton Kutcher, who, it turns out, seems to have a nose for promising private equity investments, having scored big several times on previous start-up investments. If my instincts are right about Airtable, he may have hit upon another winner.

So, what makes Airtable "the database for the rest of us"?  First of all, it is the first database I've encountered that is ever-present and always available, due to its free mobile apps (for iPhone and iPad) and its fully functional implementation via any web browser.  The data contained in an Airtable database, whether entered via the web or a mobile app, is stored in the cloud on Formagrid's servers.  Airtable is a clear demonstration that the functionality of web browser software has come a long way since Mosaic first launched in 1993. My 18-year old son at the time tipped me off to Mosaic and that "new thing" called the World Wide Web that same year.

Second, Airtable is designed to be collaborative, meaning that each database (or "base", as Airtable calls them) can have multiple users, each able to access the database independently (and concurrently), and each assigned different levels of privileges - either as creators, or as "edit only" or "read only" users.  This makes it very easy to distribute the effort involved in creating, inputting, maintaining and extracting meaningful information from shared databases, allowing teams to assign tasks to those individuals who are best suited to perform those functions.

Third, and perhaps most significant, is that Airtable is relational.  The database features offered by spreadsheets typically reflect a "flat-file" design, rows and columns, where each row is a record and each column is a field.  However, establishing relationships between data in one flat-file database and another is not easily done in  spreadsheet without the use of somewhat elaborate formulas to lookup data from one worksheet to another.  Airtable provides its relational capabilities from easily created "tables" that allow one to "relate" data in one table to data in related table through the use of linked fields.  These linked fields in one table can display data contained in another table, demonstrating the real power of relational databases, as this avoids significant unnecessary duplication of data entry.  

Fourth, Airtable is both easy to use and powerful at the same time.  While Airtable has been designed to be as intuitive as possible with a rather easy learning curve, it has database creation tools that you wouldn't expect to find in an application this approachable by the average user.  For example, you can do text calculations to create a "full name" field that displays the first and last name of a person that has been created from the concatenation of the contents of a "first name" field and a "last name" field, allowing the records in the table to be sorted by first name or last name, which would not be possible if the first and last name were is the same field. 

An important example of the sophistication and power of the field types available in Airtable is the Lookup field, which allows you to pull data from another table into your current table, based on data contained in a Linked field within the current table.  While all this may sound rather abstract in the theoretical, trust me - it will give you some great ways to view and analyze your data that just isn't possible in a spreadsheet.  Finally, the choices available for viewing, analyzing and printing your data are rich as well, with the ability to create custom views with options for filtering and sorting data while hiding unneeded fields.  

The main drawback I find right now with Airtable is that the mobile implementations for iPhone and iPad do not yet incorporate some of the helpful display features and field type options available in the web browser version.  And because the browser version is not yet enabled for a touch interface, the browser version is currently only accessible on a desktop browser.   

As you can tell, Airtable has me "all a twitter" (and no, I'm not talking about THAT app!)  In a few short weeks, I have found no fewer than 10 different data management tasks at work and at home that have lent themselves to being managed very effectively by Airtable.  Here are a few example of how I have put Airtable to use thus far:  

At work:

  • We have used it to develop a Workplace Strategy of all the office spaces and occupants in our buildings in preparation for the possibility of moving certain office operations and optimizing the space utilization and adjacencies of departments that work closely with one another.
  • Airtable allowed us a way to collaborate and share information from several managers on the interviews of applicants for an open position.

At home:

  • For Huguette's small business as a fine artist, I was able to create a comprehensive inventory of her artwork, as well as an easily accessed mileage log so she can track her business mileage during the year to simplify the process at tax time.
  • I have also set up Airtable bases to manage several home improvement projects and to track our pets' medical history.   

If you've made it this far in this rather lengthy blog post, you owe it to yourself to give Airtable a close look.   For an in-depth look at Airtable's features and capabilities, check out Don McAllister's two-part video tutorial on Airtable atwww.screencastsonline.com. 

I hope you will enjoy exploring this new "Swiss army knife" known as Airtable as much as I have so far.  I see great potential in Airtable, as I believe that the developers at Formagrid have only begun to scratch the surface of what might be possible in this brave new world of personal data management tools.