Blast from the Past: FileMaker DevCon 2001 Report


Another Blast from the Past — This article about FileMaker DevCon 2001 first appeared in a short-lived Vancouver publication called Computer Tracker in September or October of 2001. The conference was held in Orlando, Florida, and FileMaker Inc. was promoting FileMaker Pro 5.5 at the time.

FileMaker Developer Conference Report 2001

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I recently attended the FileMaker Developer’s Conference 2001 in Orlando, Florida. The conference, sponsored by Advisor Media, was held at a Disney hotel in the middle of “Disney country” and was appropriately themed “The Wonderful World of FileMaker”. FileMaker Pro is a popular workgroup database program for Windows and Macs. The conference included over 50 sessions on FileMaker related topics, including many on the recently launched products, FileMaker Pro 5.5 and FileMaker Server 5.5, and upcoming products, FileMaker Pro 5.5 Unlimited and FileMaker Developer 5.5. A healthy third-party tool market has developed around FileMaker, as evidenced by the announcement of over 30 new FileMaker plug-ins and solutions displayed at the show. Approximately 1300 consultants and in-house developers attended.

This year conference organizers had an “Airport” wireless network setup so I was able to stay connected to email and the Internet in most of the conference sessions. I could stay in the loop with my office and send back any highlights as soon as I heard them. I was able to share some of the new ideas with my co-workers back home. If the session got boring, I would fire up my web browser and check out some of the things I had heard in other sessions. Having the Airport networks definitely improved my experience of the conference.

In the keynote, President Dominique Goupil was off with a bad back, so FileMaker’s Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President Bill Epling handled most of the presentation. Epling managed to get the crowd laughing by saying Goupil had injured his back when he was preparing his keynote address. A bad back in itself was not funny, but when accompanied by the now famous Steve Balmer “Monkey Boy” video it had everyone cracking up.

News was not great for FileMaker Inc., on the sales front. Like many other companies in the computer industry, FileMaker’s sales have stagnated this year. Epling stated that FileMaker is still making money, but the growth is on hold for now. Epling’s talk was entitled “FileMaker’s Steady Course” He showed off glimpses of FileMaker 5.5 Developer which has a built in analyzer function, which allows developers to quickly document their complex solutions. It also offers a debugger for scripts. This is really the first time FileMaker has offered a true “developer” tool. Up until now, what they called FileMaker Developer was primarily a tool for creating runtime and kiosk solutions. They will soon be shipping a copy of FileMaker with advanced Developer features.

There was mention of an Aberdeen Group study which lays claim that FileMaker’s Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is up to 7 times better than industry average.

To ensure developers’ continued confidence in FileMaker Inc.’s continued viability, Bill Epling talked about the fact that FileMaker Inc., has had 14 consecutive profitable quarters as FileMaker Inc. Originally FileMaker was part of Claris Corporation, owned by Apple Computer. A couple of years back, Apple decided to wind up Claris and all it’s other products and spin FileMaker off into it’s own company totally focused on FileMaker. If you count the time when FileMaker was Claris, the company has experienced 35 profitable consecutive quarters.

FileMaker is in the Top 20 Software Companies according to the SoftLetter 100. It is one of the Top 10 software companies in Silicon Valley. Sales were $111 million in fiscal year 2000 with a 29% revenue growth in 2000. Despite all this good news, the company is not growing at all this year. For the computer industry in general, IT expenditures were down 19% year over year

Although Microsoft’s Access database product can still claim overall market leadership, FileMaker is apparently the top selling database in the retail sector. When walking into stores, apparently 45% of customers ask for FileMaker, 35% ask for Access and 25% request the “Other” database. Retail is only a limited measure of success, since most of FileMaker’s sales are now done as direct sales to corporations and government of volume licenses.

Although Epling did not disclose actual numbers, he displayed a chart that had the relative values of FileMaker’s volume licensing in seats. 1999 was better than 1998. 2000 was much better than 1999 and 2001 is slightly better than 2000. On the whole, things are up, but not as much they had been the previous year. The company’s Operating Profit was forecast to be down in 2001.

On the expense side, FileMaker has continued with an investment in advertisement branding using business card style ads in print publications such as Business Week, PC Magazine and Business 2.0 They also claim to be continuing with new product development investment in software development spending something on the order of $14 million US this year, up from $12 million last year and $10 million in 1999.

Epling told a story of how the slowing down of the IT market had actually benefited FileMaker in some cases. Apparently a major pharmaceutical company was reconsidering FileMaker. The IT department didn’t like FileMaker and had the product in their cross hairs. The IT staff’s goal was to eradicate FileMaker from the enterprise. They wanted to standardize on other databases, probably Access and MS SQL. Over 4,000 licenses were at stake. Because of current economic environment, the company would have had to make a substantial investment to drop FileMaker and buy into other solutions, especially when the cost of replacing the current software already developed in FileMaker was considered. The company has now dropped the plan to get rid of FileMaker and in fact, they may now buy a box license to go up to 11,000 seats.

Another success story was cited of a major TV network that had purchased a big name Help Desk solution that required 8 people to support. Switching to a custom FileMaker solution, which was cheaper and easier to support, allowed them to drop down to one-person part time.

Epling has been doing double duty for a while as both CFO and the acting VP Sales for the Americas. They used the conference to announce the hiring of a new Vice President of Sales. The company has hired Keith Robinson, a veteran of software sales at companies like Ashton Tate, and Symantec. There was a Canadian connection, as Robinson had been General Manager for Symantec Canada at one point in his career.

Session Notes

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I attended about a dozen sessions of the 50 or so offered. This is the fourth year of attending the conference, so I am now skipping most of the entry and intermediate level sessions and have focused on the emerging technology areas. I attended sessions on making FileMaker work with Flash using XML and CDML, FileMaker with Quark, having FileMaker talk to SQL data sources, and working with Smart Cards.

Though by no means perfect, FileMaker’s SQL connectivity has improved with version 5.5. According to FileMaker, four out of their five-step road map have been completed. Developers requiring a more powerful option for SQL access can look to a company called PDM .

In one of the sessions on database publishing from FileMaker to Quark and other desktop publishing programs, I found out about a very useful plug-in that helps me in one of my solutions called diStyler from Abtrakt. The plug-in takes styled text from a FileMaker field and converts it to either HTML or Quark Tags. This plug-in has the potential to be very useful for automating publishing solutions, such as classifieds ad systems or print directories. It isn’t perfect, but it does something that FileMaker doesn’t do on it’s own. Unfortunately, this plug-in is currently Mac only.

Waves in Motion did a session on their new Smart Card plug-in. This product allows developers to read and write information to credit card sized “smart cards”. These cards are very popular in Europe. Instead of the traditional magnetic stripe along the card, the cards have a small, encrypted memory chip that allows for the reading and writing of data to it. Applications cited included club membership cards, rewards programs and electronic cash. It remains to be seen how these cards will be adopted in North America.

Cool stuff

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The conference had an exhibit space set up for a number of the conference days and I was able to get a glimpse of a number of interesting products there. Having plug-in and third party developers available was very useful, as I sometimes couldn’t make it to an interesting session, but their booths were available for one-on-one demos.

Macromedia was on hand to demonstrate Dreamweaver UltraDev’s connection to FileMaker. This is useful for programmers using JSP to talk to FileMaker. No mention was made about PHP or ASP connectivity.

Another interesting plug-in and application I saw in the Product Showcase area was called FirePlot (now Marplot). A company has put together a number of database files to integrate a US Government open source GIS program called Marplot. Apparently government developers created a cross platform Mac and Windows program that does GIS mapping. They also developed a plug-in to link it to FileMaker. This plug-in is cross platform for Mac and Windows.

In addition to FileMaker Developer 5.5’s new documenting features, two other vendors were on hand to show alternate solutions. One was called Brushfire from Chaparral Software. It was a cross-reference and reporting tool that allows FileMaker Pro users to analyze scripts and data structures. It outputs a report to HTML and seemed to run very quickly, though lacked some of the features of more mature products. It sold for around $100 US.

Visualizer

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Visualizer from Waves in Motion will allow developers to get a visual view of their complex database structures from FileMaker.

Ontario-based, Waves in Motion, was on hand to talk about beta versions of upcoming products: Visualizer 1.0 for instant database entity relationship (ER) diagrams, and Analyzer 3.0 a system for documenting and debugging FileMaker pro databases. This product seemed the more mature of the documenting programs and will be cross platform when it ships in the fall. The addition of a visual look at database structure is something that many developers will appreciate. Even at $239 US, The Analyser could pay for itself from a single use. With the release of FileMaker Developer 5.5, and these other new products, FileMaker will come a long way towards professional presentation of data structure for developers and their clients.

Show Highlight

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FileMaker Inc., is usually fairly tight lipped about future development. As a public company, they are restricted in what they can promise so they have to be careful what they announce. Sometimes pre-announcing a feature has the unfortunate side effect of delaying purchase by consumers. One of the highlights of the show for me was a presentation by the Vice President of Product Development, Chung Le. He talked about the strategy and direction of FileMaker as a product in a two-year time frame.

Mr. Le, talked about where they saw FileMaker currently doing well. The product currently has a powerful and intuitive data model. It is a relational database that contains both data and logic in a single file or set of files. FileMaker allows for Internet out of the box with their Instant Web Publishing ability. More power comes from Custom Web Publishing using CDML or XML and the deployment of FileMaker Unlimited. Data connectivity is made possible to other systems by using ODBC, JDBC or XML. FileMaker coexists well with Excel and Access. Finally, FileMaker differentiates from other database programs by offering cross platform support for Mac and Windows. The release of FileMaker Server 5.5 has extended support for Linux as a server platform. This product was done with the assistance of Linux developers hired from Corel in Ottawa.

Future Development of FileMaker

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FileMaker is often slow to add new features. Many features that have been requested for years have been slow to emerge. The flip-side of this slow evolution has been a relatively stable base product, ease of use, and a robust third-party market for add-ons. Though some of these features are long overdue, it is good to hear that FileMaker has them on there to do list.

The first area that they are targeting is scalability and performance for both the server and the client. New features in this area will include multiple sessions per client and improving network performance

The next area mentioned was in sharing data with other databases. FileMaker Inc., plans to offer FileMaker Server support for clients other than the FileMaker client program. This will be good news for companies doing FileMaker web hosting, who have been asking for a direct link from the web to FileMaker Server. The Server product is a true multi-threaded application. FileMaker Client is still single threaded and process requests in sequence, which slows down performance.

User accounts and access privileges will be easier to maintain and administer. Unicode support to allow for sharing across languages and a more robust component based architecture.

New relational features will include a more powerful query processor and a better division of labor between guest and host. Less network traffic means better scalability and performance

Another oft requested relational detail is the end of the “one file way” relationships currently used by FileMaker. This should end complex calculations to copy data into intermediate files. A new and improved calculation engine, richer data types, a richer relational model and global calculations are in the works.

Improved productivity was promised for developers by allowing multiple tables per file. A single file may contain entire database of multiple tables making it easier to maintain files and relationships. The implication was that a developer could then define passwords, scripts, etc once for the set of tables in a single location.

Another promised feature, which brought enthusiastic sounds from the crowd, was a graphical interface for relationships between tables. This visual approach would provide entity relationship (ER) diagrams. Developers will also like the fact that they will be able to save and revert layouts, as well as record and schema changes. Other features targeted at improving the ease of use include multiple windows per file, multiple found sets and multiple active databases.

FileMaker will also continue to develop their Internet capabilities, expanding it into a more robust Internet development and deployment environment. More and better support will be forthcoming for XML, XSL, JDBC and Java Server Page as well as support for Microsoft’s Web Services (.Net).

While it may not have been as thrilling as a ride on one of Disney’s rides, the conference provided many interesting new technologies and was worth the price of admission.

Other articles like this one:
Blast from the Past: FileMaker DevCon 1998 Report
Blast from the Past: FileMaker Pro 6 Review

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