Tim Dietrich

Custom Software Developer

Home Services Portfolio Blog About Contact Newsletter

Airtable: A Quick Overview

If you follow me over on Twitter, then you may have seen some of my recent tweets about a new service called Airtable. To say that I'm excited about Airtable is a massive understatement. I'm beyond excited. "Giddy" is more like it. It's that impressive.

So what is Airtable? In the company's own words, "On the surface, it's the spreadsheet reimagined." (Notice the clever play on words there? "Surface" and "Airtable.")

Yes, it's the "spreadsheet reimagined" alright. But it's also the "database reimagined." Airtable sits somewhere between those "spreadsheet" and "database" categorizations. Being a "database guy," I think I naturally want to nudge it toward the database side a bit. And under the hood, that's what it is. But it's also much more than that.

In fact, when you're using Airtable, it's easy to forget what it is. The interface is insanely intuitive, and even after using it for a short amount of time, it seems as if you've been using Airtable for years. Everything is within easy reach, located exactly where you would expect it to be.

As someone who has been developing databases with the FileMaker platform for quite awhile, when I evaluate other databases, I naturally compare them to FileMaker. So what follows is a quick overview of Airtable as seen through the eyes of a FileMaker developer.

Hosted by default. When you create a new Airtable database, it's already "in the cloud." There's no need to upload it to a server. There's no need to worry about backing it up. All of that is done for you, and you can even take "snapshots" of the database on demand - and rollback to a snapshot in just a few clicks.

Multi-user by default. Because Airtable is cloud-based, it's ready to go with regard to collaboration. In fact, it has collaborative functionality at its core. You can @mention other users, see what other users are saying, see what they've been working on, and more.

Easy table setup. This aspect of Airtable reminds me of FileMaker's Table view, but on steroids. You can easily add new fields directly from the "table" view, reposition them, rename them, and more. And here's an awesome feature: You can take an existing column, along with all of it's values, and with a click or two you can generate a second table based on that column. Airtable automatically creates all of the links from the original table to the new table. In other words, you can have Airtable normalize a de-normalized database for you. (Yeah. Insane!)

Plenty of field types. Airtable supports a wide variety of column types, including text ("single line" and "long" types), attachments (think "containers"), checkbox, multiple options, single select, date, phone number, email, url, number, currency, percent, formula (think "calculated fields"), rollups ("summary fields"), counts, lookups.

Multi-valued fields. You can think of this as Airtable's answer to FileMaker's repeating fields. Depending on the column type, you can add multiple values to a single record. For example, in the screenshot below, the right-most column ("Supervisors") of the first record includes two values (indicating that the employee reports to two supervisors).

Multiple files per container. With Airtable's attachment column type (again, this is similar to FileMaker's container field type), you can add multiple files. To add files, you just drag and drop them. Easy!

Browser-based. There is no Airtable desktop app. Instead, it's entirely browser-based. And yet it's so fluid and graceful, and so easy to use, that it truly feels like a native desktop app.

iOS support. Airtable's iPhone app is a thing of beauty. Enough said.

Okay, I could go on and on and on... And at some point I will, in a much more detailed review of Airtable. But this is a good overview for now.

Be sure to checkout Airtable today.

Included below are a few screenshots of Airtable. I'd like to think that these will give you some idea of what it's like to work with Airtable, but they don't. You need to get inside of Airtable and take it for a spin to fully appreciate it.

Here's a sample Airtable database. I created the primary table by simply importing a spreadsheet. I then created the States table with just a few clicks, normalizing the database and creating all of the links between the original table and the secondary table automatically. (Click the screenshot for a larger view.)

Here's that same sample Airtable database as seen on my iPhone. Airtabe creates the appropriate view automatically. (Click the screenshot for a larger view.)