A company Apple spun off in 1987 could play a key role in its future


tim cook

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the WSJD Live conference in Laguna Beach, California October 27, 2014.

Way back in 1987, a few years after Steve Jobs was removed from Apple by its board of directors, Apple spun off a software subsidiary called Claris.


Claris itself is technically no more - in 1998, the company changed its name to FileMaker, after its most successful product, not long after Steve Jobs' triumphant return to Apple as CEO.

But it's still proudly billed as an Apple subsidiary. This whole time, FileMaker has been plugging away in its Santa Clara headquarters, a few miles out from Apple's famed Cupertino mothership.

On a job posting page, FileMaker boasts that it's "been profitable every quarter since our formation." Two million people have downloaded FileMaker Go, the company's iPhone and iPad app.

Over the years, FileMaker's focus has shifted: Originally, it was purely a database product; now, it helps even non-technical small business folks build custom web, Windows, Mac, iPad, and iPhone apps without needing to know how to code.


In fact, just today, FileMaker released the fifteenth version of its namesake FileMaker Pro software, adding the ability for companies to quickly add flagship Apple features like TouchID fingerprint scanning and 3D Touch pressure-sensitivity to their custom apps.

And while FileMaker may have been born in an era before Steve Jobs returned to lead Apple to world domination, it still might have an important role to play in the future of the company. Here's why.

First, a history lesson

Claris, the company that would become FileMaker, has a fascinating history that goes back to the period when Apple's prospects were getting dimmer every year, as the rise of Microsoft and IBM took its toll.

Allegedly, outside developers were jealous that the original Macintosh's built-in tools like MacWrite and MacPaint were so good, customers didn't want or need anybody else's software.

And so, Apple placed those products and a handful of others, including Microsoft Office competitor AppleWorks, under the umbrella of Claris. The idea was ostensibly to maintain the illusion that Apple wasn't competing directly with its community of developers.


Longtime Apple exec Bill Campbell, the recently-deceased Silicon Valley legend, was placed in command of the new subsidiary as CEO of Claris.

bill campbell

Stephen Lamb/Reuters

Bill Campbell speaks at the 2012 TechCrunch Disrupt conference.

Claris was largely allowed to do its own thing. It was going pretty well, too, with Claris' whole range of software tremendously popular on the Mac. In 1988, Claris made a key acquisition in the form of popular early database software FileMaker, aimed at home users and small businesses, back when people thought databases were exciting.

In fact, things were going so well that in 1990, then-Apple CEO John Sculley decided to totally scuttle any plans for letting Claris become an independent company. Bill Campbell and lots of other Apple execs left the company over Sculley's decision.

Regardless, Claris stuck around as a wholly-owned Apple subsidiary. In 1998, Claris officially changed its name to FileMaker, after its most successful product, and refocused its efforts on helping individuals and small businesses build their own apps.


Fast-forward to today

These days, Apple is in much better shape overall than it was when FileMaker got its name-change. Thanks to the massive runaway hit that is the iPhone, Apple has risen to become the most valuable company in the world.

But iPhone sales are flattening out, causing some concern for the future of the company. And so, Apple has been signing all kinds of big deals with the likes of IT titans like IBM, SAP, and Cisco to push the iPhone and iPad into the business tech market.

The idea behind those partnerships is to help Apple push iPhones and iPads into the workplace by assisting with building applications that are custom-tailored to specific business applications. So, if you're using SAP software for your accounting databases, that partnership will make it easier to build an iOS app that uses that data.

Businesspeople like using iPhones and iPads, but they need mission-critical business apps to get work done. It's an idea that resonates with FileMaker, says Director of Solutions Consulting Andy LeCates.

"We believe the best customer experience out there is on iOS," says LeCates.


filemaker apple


Apps made with the FileMaker Pro tool.

But those IBM/Apple joint solutions are out of reach or mere overkill if you're just running, say, a small local gym, to use LeCates' example. The same goes for solutions like Microsoft's cross-platform app development product Xamarin, which still requires a lot of coding know-how, or the pricey hiring of a consultant to do it for you.

Small business customers just need a way to build a slick app, use it to gather customer data for stuff like signups or scheduling appointments, and make sure it'll work on a customers' phone or browser.

LeCates says that FileMaker fills that gap: In one case, a customer was able to build out a custom app in only 10 hours, without writing any code, LeCates says. The data the app generates and collects can be shunted to other databases or spreadsheet programs, behind the scenes. And with this new version, FileMaker customers can easily build in some of the iPhone and iPad's best features, making it feel even more modern and user-friendly.

"We can be easy, but also custom," says LeCates. "We automate a lot of tech on behalf of the customer."


LeCates says that the Apple Store's small business consulting teams often recommend FileMaker to local business customers.

And so, as Apple redoubles its efforts to make a dent in the enterprise market, don't be surprised if FileMaker has a larger part to play. Not for the big, multinational corporations, but for local businesses moving pieces of their business to the iPhone and iPad.

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