Another Blast from the Past — This article ran in The Computer Paper in August 2002 edition. Six fairly major upgrades in ten years. Not bad.
FileMaker Pro 6 Review
FileMaker 6 Review
FileMaker 6, the latest version of the popular database product is both a welcome improvement and a disappointment. Many long standing user and developer requests have gone ignored in this upgrade, but some very useful new tools have been added.
A bit of Background on FileMaker
First, a bit of FileMaker background. FileMaker Inc., claims that FileMaker is the best selling database at retail level. The company claims that there are over 7.5 million of copies of the program in use. FileMaker, while more limited in programmability than Microsoft’s Access database, is by most accounts easier to program. It is also supports more users in multi-user mode. Large Access databases end up using Microsoft SQL as a backend, often requiring programming changes. FileMaker on the other hand can go from single user to over 250 simultaneous users with a product called FileMaker Server and no code changes. FileMaker also runs on Windows XP and Windows 2000, Mac OS X and Mac OS 9, Linux (FileMaker Server only), Citrix MetaFrame, in a very limited way on Palm OS, and i-mode for smart phones in Japan. FileMaker excels at Rapid Application Development and is a strong group ware development environment. Because of it’s relative ease of use, it allows users to develop and maintain their own databases. When end users get out of their league in programming, there is strong support available from the FileMaker developer network.
The most flashy of FileMaker’s new features involves improved data importing for digital image capture and file imports. The company has added more than 20 new templates for a variety of business, education and home applications. These templates are better examples of the sophistication that is possible to build into FileMaker than the previous templates. They also follow a more “up-to-date” graphic design approach. The templates also include some instructions on how to extend and customize them. The developers of FileMaker have also added some timesaving features like Format Painter and Custom Dialog Boxes for users and developers. FileMaker 6 also includes substantially better XML import and export capabilities. File
FileMaker Pro 6 files share the same file format as FileMaker Pro 5 and 5.5 files. All three versions of the database can coexist on the same network. All versions utilize the current FileMaker Server version. According to FileMaker Inc., FileMaker Pro 6 Unlimited and FileMaker Developer 6, which support the new features in FileMaker Pro 6, are planned to ship sometime this fall. Until then, some of the new features will have limited application.
The new FileMaker features vastly improved XML support. Previous versions of FileMaker employed XML in it’s ability to serve data to the web and it use XML in it’s internal style sheets. With FileMaker Pro 6 the XML capabilities are built-in and more accessible. Import/export menu selections are available without the need for the Web Companion. Customers can script these XML data import and exports. Also within FileMaker Pro 6 is an XSLT processor allowing style sheets to be processed without the need for the customer to install their own. An interesting example of using XML is a demo file that allows FileMaker to query a website directly to update information within a FileMaker Solution. The demo is of a Fedex package tracking application. In FileMaker you enter a package code and the solution returns the package shipping details. While it has been possible to launch a web browser from FileMaker for a while, having a two-way flow of data from the internet is a very useful new tool.
Other examples of uses for XML import/export include: Importing XML data from a SQL server without the use of ODBC drivers (this is a real plus for Mac OS 9 users who have suffered for years with bad or expensive ODBC drivers); Share information with other workgroups who don’t even use FileMaker Pro by sending data from FileMaker directly into a formatted Excel file or other text-based file formats; Create charts and graphics using the Standard Vector Graphic (SVG) file format to represent FileMaker data; import accounting data from QuickBooks or query web-based corporate information without using ODBC. Most of these tricks were possible before using ODBC or text files, but by going with the industry standard XML, much more integrated two-way data flows can be created. Work with XML does require some knowledge of XML and XSLT, (XML style sheets) so FileMaker Inc., has included some sample files to get started with. In addition, they are maintaining a website with additional free downloadable examples of how to use XML. XML is a useful technology for data exchange between different islands of data. XML can be limited as it requires both systems to be cooperative and coded to support the encoding, transpiration and decoding of text documents. ODBC or JDBC are more real time and high performance. They also allow for more “on the fly” coding of queries, which unless developers offer a rich XML data set isn’t always possible. FileMaker 6 does not add anything new in these areas, some developers would have liked to have seen speed or capabilities improvements in these areas.
Data and Image Importing Improved
One of FileMaker’s strengths has always been it’s ability to work with images, PDF and Quicktime movies in it’s Container format field. One of FileMaker’s weaknesses has always been getting this type of data in and out of FileMaker. In the past it was necessary to resort to plug-ins to achieve batch style import and exports. WIthout plug-ins, imports were done one at a time or by using copy and paste. FileMaker 6 does a nice job of making this improved import/export capability simple to use. It is now possible to capture images and their related data into FileMaker Pro 6 directly from a digital camera (This feat is OS X only. Strangely OS X users don’t get toolbars. Go figure.), or import multimedia files from a folder into your FileMaker Pro database.
Custom Dialog Boxes
The new Custom Dialog Boxes feature, allows developers to create dialog boxes with custom and dynamic titles and messages, useful when creating customized error or user feedback boxes. While this is an improvement, the Custom Dialog Boxes are not infinitely modifiable. In previous versions the Show Message script step allowed developers to display custom messages, but limited to three options (Yes, No, Cancel)
Dialog boxes continued
Many developers would probably hope for more of a Visual Basic/Real Basic screen layout program. Instead, FileMaker 6 gives the ability to add up to three input boxes. This can be useful for enforcing data entry standards. Some users will still be frustrated by this feature. Developers may still need to use third party plug-in tools to achieve their desired goals with regards to Dialog Boxes.
Format Painter is another useful new tool. When creating layouts, it allows the developer to apply a variety of text, font, size, fill pattern color and style formatting to a piece of text or a particular field, then select the field or text block and choose Format Painter to apply these style selections to other fields or text. FileMaker keeps this style information in it’s internal clipboard, so you can even copy formats to other open databases. Unfortunately, the command is tucked away in a menu and is not accessible directly from the screen. An extra icon in the formatting area and a command key for rapid access would have added to it’s functionality.
Find and Replace on a single Record, or through a Found Set
Sort From a Field’s Context Menu
Another useful interface improvement is the addition of a Sort command into the properties function of all fields. To invoke this command, simply click in any field and then right click (Control-Click on a Mac) on the field. Up pops a menu that includes the Sort by Field commands. This sorting ability was always there, it has just been made much easier to access, especially in databases with large numbers of fields. This feature provides a more intuitive way of sorting a record set in form view, without having to navigate to the Sort Records dialog.
Constrain and Extend Found Set
In earlier versions of FileMaker, it is possible to create very complex on-the-fly And/Or queries. FileMaker 6 adds a new level of refinement to this ability. Now users can perform more sophisticated Finds by either constraining or extending an existing found set, without a series of complex steps. FileMaker 6 places these new capabilities into the menu called Requests which only shows up when in Find Mode. Unfortunately, they did not give these items command or control keys which would speed things up for keyboard oriented users.
Goodbye to Standard Script Steps
Another long awaited improvement is the dropping of the standard script steps. For too long, whenever a new script was created, FileMaker would drop a standard set of script steps into the new script creation area. This was frustrating to advanced scripters, who would always have to select all the steps and clear them before they could begin their real work. Presumably these were there to give an example of how the script editor worked for new users, but it was quickly just an irritant. Anyway, it is gone now. Praise be to the software gods.
File Importing Improved
Worth the Upgrade?
As a long time FileMaker developer, it would seem that this should have been FileMaker 5.7, not FileMaker 6. 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. There are some worthwhile improvements here, but we are still left waiting for some of the features promised at last year’s FileMaker Developer Conference. For these we may have to wait for FileMaker 7.
Pricing and Upgrades
The estimated upgrade price of FileMaker Pro 6 is US$149.00. SRP for a full copy of FileMaker Pro 6 is US$299.00. (www.filemaker.com)