Filemaker 8.5 Puts the Web in Your Database

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted July 31, 2006

Most software companies issues yearly updates to their programs, but FileMaker, Inc, maker of the FileMaker Pro relational database system, has issued an interim upgrade, FileMaker Pro 8.5.

The company positions FileMaker as a relatively easy-to-use tool for small and medium business — "the database management tool for mere mortals as opposed to database programmers." But version 8.5 offers a substantive new feature that lets you display dynamic Web content in a FileMaker database layout. It also adds new scripting features and support for Intel-based Macintosh computers that will make the program run significantly faster.

Should you upgrade? That depends on your database needs and capabilities. If you've got mad database skillz and want to create customized programs for your business, this might be worth the $99 price of admission. If you're more likely to stick to the database templates FileMaker offers, and all you need is a basic database, you can probably wait for the next full version upgrade.

First, A Bit of Background
FileMaker 8.0, released last fall (and reviewed here), included new features designed to make it easier to share FileMaker data with others who don't use the program, especially via e-mail. The PDF Maker feature for the first time let users export data from a record or a set of records to a PDF file from within FileMaker while retaining the native FileMaker formatting. The Excel Maker feature works similarly.

Fast Send, another new feature in FileMaker 8.0, lets users quickly e-mail the contents of any field, by right-clicking in the field and selecting Export field contents from the pop-up menu. The E-mail Merge feature made it easy to automate e-mail marketing campaigns from within FileMaker. And Fast Match made it easier for users unfamiliar with database query syntax and methods to quickly find data they want.

New users or users of versions of FileMaker before 8.0 will pay $299 for FileMaker Pro 8.5 or $499 for FileMaker Pro 8.5 Advanced. The Advanced product adds a suite of customization and development tools. FileMaker Server 8, a separate product that makes it possible to integrate FileMaker databases with enterprise SQL and Oracle systems, is priced at $999, and FileMaker Server Advanced 8, which adds Web publishing and connectivity options, lists for $2,499. All prices are manufacturer's list in U.S. dollars.

Adding Web Content
The main new feature in 8.5 is the Web Viewer control. A control is a database field that performs a special function. The Web Viewer control accesses and displays Web content in a FileMaker layout, including content defined by information in the database. The control will display virtually any type of Web content, including HTML, PDF, QuickTime, Java applets, Flash and SVG charts and PHP classes, fillable forms and binary files such as Excel and Word documents.

This is a useful feature because it means the database can automatically find and display information relevant to the record without you having to take the time and trouble to open a browser and search for it. For example, a customer database could include Web Viewer controls to display a map showing the location of the customer's premises and/or the customer's Web page.

Using scripting, the control can find the map by automatically passing address information from the FileMaker database record to the Google Web page. Or it could find the Web site by automatically passing the URL from the record's URL field. The benefit here is that if the customer's address changes, you only need to change the address fields and the Web Viewer control will automatically find the right map for the new address.

FileMaker also suggests that companies could include a Web Viewer control in a customer order database that automatically accesses and displays FedEx tracking information based on the number in the record's tracking number field.

How To Take Control
You create a Web Viewer control in the program's design mode by clicking on the Web Viewer icon in the main tool palette and then drawing a box in the layout area. The control's configuration dialog automatically pops up.

FileMaker has included automated tools in the dialog to create scripts for sourcing information from popular data-driven Web sites. These include Google and MapQuest maps, Google, Wikipedia (and other Wiki site) searches and FedEx tracking information. In the case of Google Maps, for example, you simply click on the arrows beside relevant Google Map search fields — street address, city, state, zip code — and select the relevant FileMaker field from the fly-out menu list.

FileMaker Pro 8.5 screen shot
Using FileMaker Pro 8.5 lets you display Web content within a database. This customer database uses content from Google Maps to display the customer's business address.
(Click for larger image)
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It's possible to source and display almost any content on the Web, but if you want to get it from sites other than these few, you'll have to write your own custom scripts — which makes using this feature considerably more complicated. If you want the control to go to a site and look up specific information, you'll need to know the special syntax used by that site in order to write a script that works.

Our Hands-On Experience
To test the feature, we created a new database using the provided Contact Manager template and added a Web Viewer control to display a Google map based on address information in the record. It was easy to do and the feature worked as advertised. However, the entire Web page, not just the map, displays in the layout. It also doesn't size itself to the box you've created. So if you make your layout box too small, the relevant information likely won't be visible. And in the case of some Web sites, it's difficult or impossible to scroll the page. You may have to adjust existing layouts to accommodate the larger boxes needed for Web Viewer controls.

The other new program features are not as important or useful, but they're still worth having. Some were created specifically or in part to support the new Web Viewer control. All of them relate to script features used to create custom database functionality, so they may be somewhat obscure and of little importance to non-technical people.

Scripting Features
FileMaker now lets you name any object in a database layout. An object in a FileMaker layout is any field, text, geometric shape, portal (an embedded display of information from another database table), tab panel (for grouping and displaying information as file folders) — or Web Viewer object.

Being able to name objects makes it easier for developers to create startup scripts, for example, that place the cursor at exactly the point in the layout where they want the user to start. You could do this in earlier versions, but it required the extra step of creating a hidden field at the object and then using the Go To Field script command. Now you can simply use the Go To Object command.

The related GetLayoutObjectAttribute function finds out the name of the active object and returns information about it — type, bounds, source, content, state, etc. — to the script. Based on this information, the script can then perform additional actions.

The Set Web Viewer script step lets developers embed browser-like commands in Web Viewer scripts such as reset, reload, go forward, go back, or go to a specific URL. When using Web Viewer to show currency exchange information, for example, the reload command ensures that the current live information is displayed rather than already out-of-date information on a cached version of the page.

Finally, the new list function finds out all the values associated with a field. This could be used to script tooltips — pop-up text that displays when anyone places the mouse cursor over a field. By hovering the mouse over the Company Name field, for example, you can see all the company names in the database, or by pointing to the Items field in a customer order record, see all the parts in a shipment.

The new script features all work as advertised but have little utility for non-expert FileMaker customers who want to make simple databases. That said, and notwithstanding FileMaker's claim that the product is for non-programmers, there are many, many in-house and contract FileMaker developers who will presumably welcome these new features.

The only other enhancement relates to the internal functioning of the program on Macintosh computers. FileMaker claims FileMaker 8.5 is the first program to run natively on both PowerPC- and newer Intel- based Macs. The result is that it runs 1.5 to two times faster than FileMaker 8 on a PowerPC Mac.

Bottom Line
Most of the changes in FileMaker 8.5 will only be of interest to people with fairly advanced database skills. Clearly the most important new feature is the Web Viewer object. For people who have been waiting for this functionality, deciding whether to spend the $99 for an upgrade is probably a no-brainer. Everyone else may want to consider waiting for Version 9.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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