Online database update — Airtable looks extremely promising

Six years ago, DabbleDB was shut down. It was a major blow, since I had been using their easy but powerful online database for everything from editorial workflow to invoicing.

We experimented with a wide variety of options, and eventually settled on three: Google Docs and Spreadsheets for event management and accounting, WordPress for website editorial workflow, Evernote for personal note taking, and Filemaker — which can be run in a hosted environment — for everything else.

Each time I started a new project, I would review available options to see if any new services appeared that would allow me to consolidate on one platform.

Here’s were the things I was looking for:

  • Has to be online, since my team is all over the world.
  • Has to have mobile support, since I like to work remotely with my tablet. That doesn’t mean it has to have a separate app — a website usable on a phone or tablet would do — but separate mobile apps are nice.
  • Has to allow for collaborative editing of a relational database, not just simple lists, forms, or spreadsheets.

Plus, it has to have a free or very low-cost basic tier that would allow for us to do something useful with it.

Yes, pretty much every platform out there has a free trial, but two to four weeks is not enough to decide whether a product fits into our workflow. A free trial is only useful to definitively rule a product out, but it’s not enough to decide whether it’s a good fit for us.

Finally, it has to be easy to use. I don’t want to spend weeks learning a new platform. If I can’t immediately get it to something useful, I’m not going to bother with it.

Here’s the full list of apps that I’m looking at, with the price of the first paid tier: Airtable (free, then $10 per user per month), Appyourself (20 Euro), BaseBear (9 Euro), Biznessapps ($99), Bubble (free, then $14), Caspio (free, then $59), Dadabik ($49), Fusioo ($19), Kintone ($24), Kohezion (free or $50 per user per year), Knack ($39 per month), Mobincube.com ($10), MyTaskHelper (free for 5 forms, then $5), Nestpia(free), Odoo (free for under 50 users, extra cost for custom apps), Podio ($9), Quickbase ($15), Siberiancms(free, host on own server), Simbla ($6), Ragic (free or $5), TeamDesk ($49), Vertabelo.com ($9), WorkflowFirst.com ($15), Worksheet.systems (free plan for up to 5 tables, then $50), ZenBase ($39), Zoho Creator ($5).

Now, I used to be relational database developer in a previous life, back when all variables are global, numbers had to be converted to base 256, and you had to drop down to Assembler to write sorts and searches because otherwise they would be too slow. I know Access, I can find my way around mySQL and PHP, I can write Filemaker scripts.

But while I can do all of that, I DON’T WANT TO. There’s a reason that I’m not working as a developer right now. I like interviewing people and writing articles. I don’t mind messing around with code once in a while, but only if it’s really really important. So, for example, I learned to edit WordPress PHP files because it comes up a lot in my line of work. It was a worthwhile investment of my time.

But if I’m switching away from Google Spreadsheets, WordPress and Filemaker, then the new platform I go to has to be easier to use. Otherwise, why bother?

So far, all the platforms I tried have been either extremely difficult to use (hello, Caspio and Zoho!) or have lacked critical functionality. Now, price is a consideration, but I’m willing to pay more for a usable service. However, in my experience, the pricier the platform, the harder it is to use. I guess they figure their customers are enterprises with dedicated database admins.

This week, however, I found a new platform that meets pretty much all my criteria — AirTable.

It is super simple. You just create an account and start using it.

The free option allows you an unlimited number of databases, each one with an unlimited number of tables, with a maximum of 1,200 records per database and 2 gigabytes of attachments per database.

The $10 per user per month option ups that to 5,000 records and 5 gigabytes of attachments for each database. At $20 a month, you’re up to 50,000 records and 20 gigabytes of attachments.

I love this pricing system. It means that I can play around with small projects as long as I like, to my heart’s content, with as many people as I want, with no pressure. And the 1,200 records limit actually works for my company since we don’t deal with large databases, just lots of pesky little ones.

Structure and features

The basic working environment here is a table, similar to, say, Google Spreadsheets.

 

At the top of the screen, right in the center, there’s the name of the database.

Then you’ve got your tables. This particular project management database — one of the many starting templates that Airtable offers — has a project list, a tasks list, and a clients list with a simple tab switcher.

Then you’ve got the table itself. You can hide or expand columns and rearrange them just by dragging-and-dropping. You can change the column names right here, or click on any line to go to a form-style data entry view.

Each tab also has a little drop-down icon. You can have different views of the same table. You can have filtered views, where you only see certain items, or grouped views, or sorted views, or any combination. There are buttons right there to add tables or add views, and you can import data from spreadsheets to populate new tables.

So you’re thinking — okay, but I can do all this in a Google Spreadsheet. So what?

Well, first of all, Google Spreadsheets won’t let you save multiple views.

But, most importantly — and this is key for a database product — you can link records to each other. And the linking options include many-to-many relationships, one-to-many, and self-joins.

And the linking process is super intuitive. Click on the little down arrow next to the column name, aka the field name, and you can customize the field type (and here is where you would also add filters, sorts, and groupings). Pick “Link to another record” as the field type,  choose any table to link to, and tell it whether you want to be able to link to multiple records.

That’s it.

Then when entering the data in that field, you get options for finding the records you want to link to.

And you can also look up data from another table. And you can do formulas — you can do calculations, logical functions, subtotals, averages. It’s fantastic.

Other field types include Web links, currencies, email addresses, phone numbers, and attachments. Attachments get shown as little preview icons, and if you click on them, it shows the entire document.  You can’t edit the attachments from within Airtable, however. But you can use the Web link field type to, say, link to Google Docs.

What’s missing

I used to use DabbleDB to generate invoices. Airtable has everything you need to keep track of bookkeeping details, but it doesn’t have nice reports.

Of course, neither did DabbleDB when it first launched. They added it as a result of customer demand.

I notice in Airtable’s support forums, the ability to design a page for printing is one of the most requested items.

I would also like to be able to create charts and graphs, and there are a lot of people asking for that, as well.

In addition, while Airtable has both iOS and Android apps in addition to its Web app, the mobile apps require a constant Internet connection. That’s not too much of a problem for me, since I have Wifi everywhere I go, but I see that a lot of people are asking for it.

What’s cool

Okay, so I love the interface and the mobile apps. I love the fact that the company is rolling out new features at a pretty solid clip. I like their tutorials — though I haven’t yet needed them! — and how busy their forums are.

They also have an API for external integration.

And it’s not just for developers. You can connect your Airtable account to IFTTT or Zapier to, say, generate a Gmail email whenever a new record is added to a table. For example, I have a folder in Google Docs where I add documents I’m working in. I used Zapier to add an entry to an Airtable table with the documents title and URL. Now whenever I create a new document, it gets automatically added to the database. It was simple and intuitive.

Am I ready to switch everything over?

Not quite yet.

To start with, a lot of what I do involves a great deal of text. I have research notes, interview transcripts, and article drafts to juggle. Right now, I’m doing all of this in Filemaker. Yes, I’m using Filemaker as a word processor, wanna make something of it? It works. In fact, it works great.

If Airtable added a full-screen rich text editor that would be excellent.

Next, I send out invoices. Right now, for one set of clients, I send them out through Filemaker, and, for another set of clients, I use Google Spreadsheets and Google Docs.

From what I can tell, Airtable seems to be working on both of these issues. Looks like invoices and other reporting functionality is already in beta testing,