FileMaker Pro � Still Designed for Small Business

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted October 24, 2005


FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced
FileMaker Pro from FileMaker Inc. (now owned by Apple) has quietly grown over a 20-year span from being a fairly simple tool for developing simple databases to one capable of building very sophisticated systems that can run entire businesses. Yet the latest version, FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced ($500 for the application or $300 to upgrade), retains at least some of the program's historical simplicity, and in fact adds a bunch of new easy-to-use features.

"The design goals for FileMaker 8 were to make it work faster and let people share information more easily," says FileMaker spokesperson Kevin Mallon. The company's aim is that the product remains "the database management tool for mere mortals as opposed to database programmers." It appears to be succeeding in this effort, although FileMaker Pro is by no means for computer newbies.

FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced, an upgrade to FileMaker Developer 7, is one of five products in the new line. The others are FileMaker Pro 8 ($300/$180), FileMaker Server 8 ($1,000/$300), FileMaker Server 8 Advanced and FileMaker Mobile 8. The last two will be available later in 2005.

Choose Your Database
Which database is right for your needs? FileMaker Pro 8 remains a good product for small and home businesses with simple needs. The Server product lets small firms share FileMaker databases over a LAN and the Advanced server product makes it possible to integrate FileMaker databases with enterprise SQL and Oracle systems. The mobile product lets FileMaker developers create applications that can be synchronized with mobile devices.

In addition to the main FileMaker programs, the company also offers free starter kits for developing complete management systems for generic small businesses, creative professionals and K-12 education customers, plus a series of ready-made, FileMaker-based applications priced from $70 to $300.

FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced is the flagship product. Like similar programs, most notably Microsoft Office Access, it lets you create databases with multiple related tables — a table of customer companies and a related table for individual customer contacts, as a simple example. You can specify fields to hold data in each record — name, address, phone number, for example — and, using the program's design mode, arrange fields in layouts to create forms for inputting and displaying data.

The Sum of its Parts
None of the new features represents a startling breakthrough in functionality, but most appear to be useful and well executed, and they add up to a significant improvement in the product. Several of the new features are designed to make it easier to share FileMaker data with others who don't use the program, especially via e-mail. These features include:

With the new PDF Maker feature, you can export data from a record or a set of records to a PDF file from within the program, retaining the native FileMaker formatting. A two-click menu selection launches a simple dialog in which you name the new file and set PDF options such as metadata and a password.

Selecting a check box automatically generates an e-mail with the new PDF file as an attachment when the process is complete. The feature could be used, with a controlling script, to automatically generate invoices and e-mail them to customers. More simply, it could be used to produce database reports to send to colleagues or customers who don't have FileMaker.

Excel Maker works exactly the same way to create an Excel file that can manipulate data using spreadsheet functionality not available in FileMaker, or to graph data. Or it could be used simply to send FileMaker data to people who run Excel so that it's in a format they can read. FileMaker views Excel, rather than Access, as its main competitor. Too many Excel customers try to use the program for things more suited to a database management product like FileMaker, the company says.

Fast Send lets you quickly e-mail the contents of any field. Simply right-click in the field and select Export field contents from the pop-up menu. If the data is text, the resulting dialog asks you to type in a name for a new text file. The dialog also provides the same check-box option for automatically creating an e-mail message with the new file as an attachment. If the field is a Container field that holds a separately stored data file, the Fast Send dialog shows the name of that file automatically filled in.


FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced
New features make using and designing with FileMaker Pro easier and more efficient.

Finally, the new E-mail Merge feature makes it easy to automate e-mail marketing campaigns from within FileMaker. This could be done in the past, but required writing a complex script. Now it's reasonably simple. After identifying a set of recipients in the database, choose File/Send Mail to launch FileMaker's modified e-mail dialog. If you're sending one e-mail to multiple recipients, choose the database field to use in the To: field in each message — presumably the Name field. Then type a message or use the file selector to choose a stored document as the message. FileMaker automatically extracts the e-mail address for each recipient and sends the messages using the default e-mail program.

One of the best of the new features is Fast Match, which makes it easy for people unfamiliar with database query syntax and methods to quickly find data they want. In the past, to find all the customers in California with the title CIO, you had to write a query using Boolean operators such as AND and OR. Now you can simply browse a database and right-click in the State field of the first record you see for a California customer. Selecting Find Matching Records from the pop-up menu creates a set of records of all California customers. To find all the CIOs in California, right click in the Title field of the first record you find for a CIO and choose Constrain Found Set.

Design Your Data
FileMaker has also introduced some useful refinements to the design part of the program. The new Tab Control makes it easy to create matched sets of tabbed pages on a form for displaying different categories of information — different tabs for each year to show the order history in a customer record, for example. Tabs save screen real estate and declutter layouts. FileMaker let developers create tabs in the past, but it meant tedious custom designing of each one as a separate layout.

The new Tab Control automatically creates matched sets of tabs from a single dialog and lets you move fields into them. If you later have to change some common aspect such as the banner, you can change it for all the tabs at once. So the new feature also saves development time.

You can now attach tooltips to any database field or layout object. When you hover a mouse over a field or object, the tooltip pops up to offer guidance, making the database easier and more intuitive to use. The tooltips can be either static text or a calculated value. You could use a calculated value in a tooltip for a text box with a character limit, for example, to indicate how many more characters can be entered before the field is full.

FileMaker has also improved custom menu creation features. As well as adding, deleting and renaming standard FileMaker menus and menu items to create a custom application, you can also now modify the keyboard shortcut associated with a menu item. And you can designate some fields in a database as auto fill-in so that when you begin to type, the program automatically fills in the rest of the text from a related record.

The new features certainly make it easier to design and use FileMaker databases. And almost anyone can use this program to create fairly simple, straightforward applications. But be aware that even with the ease-of-use enhancements in Version 8, creating sophisticated database applications with FileMaker will still require a significant amount of learning.

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 new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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