FileMaker has always been the database of choice for the Macintosh. That FileMaker has survived – and thrived on the Mac – as well as making inroads into the PC market, is a testament to its quality. Indeed, people who would probably run a mile if you mention the words “relational database” will happily input advanced queries, and produce complex reports in FileMaker.
Version 5 adds a number of features, the most obvious being a user-interface redesign – meant to bring the layout more in-line with the look-&-feel of the 800lb-gorilla of business applications, Microsoft Office. A new Table View makes it easier to see the content of your database, and edit it interactively – rather than shuffling through records. New Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) support provides easier ways of importing data into FileMaker, and sharing data.
The Web-publishing features have also been improved, including better layout definition and enhanced security. Code rewrites mean that version 5 is incompatible with previous versions. Files saved in 5 cannot be opened by 4 – although, when opening an existing database from version 1 upwards, it will automatically convert it and save a backup copy of the original. This also means that version 3 of the Server edition of FileMaker cannot open FileMaker Pro 5 files – you’ll need FileMaker 5 Server too.
Using FileMaker Pro 5 is essentially the same as using the previous version – with the process of defining fields, and then entering records, pretty much the same. A table is a separate file, so that relationships between tables are essentially between files. I’m not sure if this helps performance, but at least it’s simple to understand.
One impressive FileMaker feature is the way results are displayed. You can achieve this in a number of ways. For example, invoicing sales reports and stock control, can be presented in different ways.
The layout tools in FileMaker are unsurpassed by any other database I have seen, and go a long way to explaining the popularity of FileMaker on the Mac. While all databases have hurled themselves at the Web as the future of client interfaces, FileMaker hasn’t forgotten the importance of well-presented printed information.
For cross-platform users, FileMaker remains just about the only option. FileMaker files are fully interchangeable between the Mac and the PC, which can be a godsend for small offices. Its Web-publishing tools allow FileMaker to export a database as a series of static HTML pages. You can assign a FileMaker database to an IP address – for remote access, multiple users, and to allow the database to be accessed via the Web. Version 5 adds greater security to online database publishing, including the ability to limit access to certain IP address ranges.
FileMaker allows you to construct structured query language (SQL) statements when importing data. Bizarrely however, it does not support SQL queries to actually search data. Instead, constructing queries can be a convoluted task, requiring you to create a number of sub-queries – that are executed sequentially – to return the desired information. This can get tricky, especially when the queries cross several files.
This convoluted way of constructing queries and building relationships doesn’t bode well for FileMaker’s performance, especially for multiple users – the Server edition is an essential for more than ten users. But, for most small-scale users, FileMaker Pro’s ease of use, and superb presentation tools, will carry the day.
FileMaker 5 isn’t exactly a revelation for existing users, but does contain enough new features to see it into the next millennium. Serious developers should be aware of the need to have the compatible Server and Developers editions. FileMaker Pro remains one of the best tools around for managing and presenting data from the desktop.