March 1999

Nashoba, We Hardly Knew Ye
by Brian Dunning

digg this article | this article

A lengthy calculation, courtesy of the National Center for Supercomputing, has proven that it is impossible to have a gathering of FileMaker Pro developers without most of them bragging about how long they've been using FileMaker.

Especially when newbies are present, the old-timers try to outdo each other by casually dropping references to their long experience into the conversation. "Oh yes, the Status registers. We did without those in the old 2.1 days."

Or "It used to be easy to import and export scripts. You just stuck the same punchcard in for each file."

If you ask, most of these guys will tell you they've been "using FileMaker since the old FileMaker Plus days." There probably aren't any living humans who actually did use FileMaker Plus, but it remains the subject of many a proud boast nevertheless.

I am one of those rare minorities who tries to use the latest version of FileMaker, and am therefore no expert on its history. I did use FileMaker II once, but I didn't know what I was doing then any more than I do now; and I pretended to be amazed when I first saw FileMaker Pro. I couldn't tell any difference, but am not one to tip my hand.

Everyone has a different version of FileMaker's primordial history. Separating the facts from the fiction is like dissecting Roswell or the Kennedy assassination: after so many years of scuttlebutt, it's not likely that the truth will ever be known.

The hazy rumors agree on a few points. Sometime between 1983 and 1985, the original FileMaker was developed by Nashoba Systems. Forethought, which had sold the IBM PC database Nutshell, acquired FileMaker and sold a version called FileMaker Plus, around 1986 or 87. Not to be outdone, Nashoba took it back and offered FileMaker 4 in 1988. Within a couple months, an 800 pound gorilla named Claris stepped in and changed the name to FileMaker II. It took five years, but someone finally decided to adopt a sequential numbering system for the versions, and Claris FileMaker Pro v1 came out. This was cleverly followed by v2, v3, v4, and if they don't bring Nashoba back in to retitle the next version III Plus, we'll see v5 very soon. Various adaptations of this history have been published here and there, and studied into the wee hours by FileMaker developers preparing for a conversation.

Backdating your FileMaker solutions is not like talking about your first car, because you can't really go back any further than the 80's. Talking about your use of Forethought's Nutshell on the IBM PC in the late 70's is a strain. "I wiped out my Jag on Dead Man's Curve in '61" sounds really cool and has a certain James Dean mystique, but "My FileMaker experience stretches back to the mid 1980's" just doesn't have the same sex appeal. Nevertheless we all keep trying.

Namedropping is always prominent in these conversations. A lot of guys claim to have known Woz, and used FileMaker with him extensively, and been his buddy. If half of these stories were true, Woz would need more groupies than Moses.

Nobody seems to know very much about Nashoba Systems, but it is a favorite for namedropping too:

"I used FileMaker back in the Nashoba days."

"Oh yeah? Well I looked at the old Pascal code. Fixed it up for them, too."

"I wrote the original Pascal language."

"I invented the punchcard."

"I invented paper."

"I was the first erect biped."

Unable to win the FileMaker Pro Venerability contest, some developers assert their seasoning by snubbing FileMaker in favor of the most obscure databases they can come up with. The goal here, apparently, is to throw out database names that the listener has never heard of, in order to make him feel naïve and inadequate. If you're on the lookout, you'll know to pretend that you have heard of it, and have a ready reason to scoff at it. Thus:

"Of course, my real experience comes from Cumulus."

"Oh, Cumulus, sure. It doesn't support BLOBs. Reflex is better."

"I found Reflex too easy to use. So I concentrated on Inside Outside."

Then there are the developers who think that a large file size, or a huge number of files, is somehow indicative of great skill and mastery.

"My recipe database has thirty-six files."

"That's nothing. I once did a contact manager that required over seventy. Had to spread it across two servers."

Perhaps a class in relational design, fellas.

Hopefully these few observations will help you better prepare for your next facetime with other developers. So long as you go in knowing you can't win, because there's always someone who, back when he was a Cro-Magnon, got FileMaker to run on an array of mastodon ribs, you'll know to rely on the quality of your solutions to represent your skill as a developer. My sense is that you'll have the edge over the mastodon guy.

Addendum, dated 5/16/2004:

As it turns out, the original programmer of the FileMaker database engine was a guy named Spec Bowers, which, in an amazing coincidence, just happens to be the first cousin of our good friend, Soliant Consulting's Bob Bowers (no one was more surprised to learn this than Bob).

Here is a great article by Glenn Koenig, from an interview he did with Spec. It turns out the actual history is not so murky as I fancifully liked to believe...