Review: FileMaker Pro 9

Published by MacOPZ on

The emphasis of the FileMaker product range has slowly but discernibly shifted in recent versions away from a small-scale, self-contained database system towards a database management system with its own way of doing such things as serving web pages and working in a client-server environment. It’s also moved towards fuller awareness of industry standards; towards greater and better communication with other systems; and towards collaborative ways of entering, manipulating and sharing data. Now FileMaker Pro 9 finally has full SQL functionality and inter-connectivity with those industry-standard systems and formats. This pedigree and this superset of functionality make FileMaker a very strong product family indeed. Version 9 continues the trend and must still be considered the market leader.

It’s clear that this shift in emphasis aims at greater enterprise market share for the product range’s eponymous company. Indeed, FileMaker Pro has an army of independent developers and application builders, consultants and integrators — the first book for FileMaker Pro 9 is already available. The software truly does represent the best option, for example, in the case of small to medium data-led web applications. At the same time, one of the great strengths of successive FileMakers has been that the simple, small, non-professional user (small non-profits, personal CD collection, mailing lists, community groups as well as many small and locally-run businesses and the like) is never left behind either. FileMaker Pro version 9 is still very well equipped to meet both sets of needs – and most points in between. It’s still an excellent choice for a home user needing to organize (and manipulate, script, calculate and display) almost every conceivable set of data (in a huge variety of forms and formats). And increasingly, the product lives up to the demands of workgroups in the enterprise. Now version 9’s interface and usability enhancements make it just as an attractive (if a little pricey) option as anything else on the market. It is as robust, reliable, fully-featured and easy to set up, customize and use as ever. The file format has not changed, by the way: the datafiles’ extension is still ‘.fp7’.

FileMaker Pro Verion

Every feature of FileMaker Pro Advanced tested during review performed impeccably… FileMaker’s QA is as strong as ever!

For version 9 there are over 30 new features, enhancements and improvements. The company’s claim that this is the “most dramatic new offering in years” might be a little steep. It would rest on significant improvements in four areas:

  1. data sharing and interconnectivity with enterprise-level SQL-based systems
  2. improved reporting; some positive changes to design
  3. sleeker and more fully-functioned automation
  4. more ambitious web tools and functionality

Although to the casual or non-expert user these might not all immediately be apparent, even such changes as the location of and addition to certain menu items in the user interface do reveal that a great deal of thought has gone into making regular usage more ergonomically sound and, for example, repeated operations easier. Dominique Goupil, FileMaker’s president, has described this goal: “With FileMaker 9 we go further. We make it easier than ever for developers and users to manage information in amazingly productive and creative ways. For example, our goal is to make FileMaker Server 9 so easy that FileMaker Pro customers can install it in 20 minutes or less, and quickly share database solutions.”

By and large, the company has lived up to that aim and the product really has enhanced usability and ease of use. Take the new ‘Append to PDF’ feature: it’s now possible to add data to an existing PDF format report, rather than have to generate a new one. A small change; but with repeated use a time saver. Then there’s a new ‘Quick Start’ screen which guides new users easily through FileMaker 9’s features and allows you easier and quicker access to frequently-used databases. Formatting can now be conditional: data is highlighted depending on parameters set by the user – useful for validation and error checking. Designing, maintaining and modifying databases and their layout have all been significantly enhanced: there are more tools and these are easier to use to control auto-resize and tabs, for example; there is an improved and updated Web Viewer.

The most striking addition to FileMaker Pro functionality is the suite’s ability to connect to SQL data sources (such as Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle and MySQL) outside the FileMaker environment and integrate live data from those systems right into your FileMaker Pro data – as if data in those other applications were actually within your FileMaker database itself. Simply put, the conceptual model is the same as the way in which FileMaker handles related tables: if you can see them (both those FileMaker tables, and remote SQL data), you can read and write to them – once you have authenticated, if necessary. At the very least, this will allow FileMaker to act as a superb front end to the heavy duty Oracles and MySQLs in use throughout the world. SQL can be intimidating – it is, after all, a language. FileMaker Pro 9 makes manipulation of data this way simple and removes (or conceals) the need to become bogged down in SQL’s syntax.

This inclusion of SQL into FileMaker has been a long time coming, has been said by many users and analysts to be essential, and now allows Filemaker to venture into environments and systems from which it was previously excluded. These will include corporate and enterprise data management systems. In practice, it’s going to take professionals who are already familiar with the way, say, that Oracle works to make the most of such a sophisticated system. Careful thought will have to be given both to security and to decisions as to which portions of your data resides where and what the logic is for such interoperability. But this new functionality in FileMaker 9 is a major step forward in those cases where organizations are ready, but have been held back.

FileMaker Pro Features

FileMaker Pro 9 now has enhanced PHP support. This is the programming/scripting environment of choice in the common open source MySQL world; with FileMaker Server 9 there is now a menu item that launches a Site Assistant to make construction of PHP-driven web pages, for example, much more intuitive and accessible. The claim that an experienced user can have a useful PHP-driven website built and running within 20 minutes may be a little ambitious. But it’s easy to see how many small to medium-size ISPs and medium-sized businesses wanting to offer database driven sites from a workgroup environment already happy with FileMaker (some local government agencies, small and growing businesses, entertainment entities, libraries and retailers) could benefit from this advance.

Scripting is another area that’s been significantly improved in FileMaker Pro 9. The updated script debugger lets you place multiple breakpoints on multiple steps and/or pause execution of script steps before they do the damage! You can now view the error result of the last script step and still then set scripts to automatically pause on error. There is a ‘Debug Login’ for troubleshooting and several other new scripting tools. FileMaker scripts can now be organized inside logically-structured folders making conceptual grouping easier. The Data Viewer (whose columns can now be sorted by clicking on their header) now includes a new tab, ‘Current’, to view all field and variables used in the currently executing script. When scripted apps have grown, shall we say, ‘organically’, that’s a big plus!

You can now generate a simple email link to send to other FileMaker users; they can simply click to access your database without worrying about IP addresses and the like. That’s a good example of a small, thoughtful, simple innovation with a potentially significant payoff. Just as useful is the new automatic update notification routine. Even more useful, perhaps than either, are multiple levels of undo and redo, spellcheck at the field level and new shipping label formats. These suggest the product managers at FileMaker have both listened to their customers and/or have put together feature sets specifically matched to target markets whose users both know what they want and then will in many cases come to be pleasantly surprised by features they will wonder how they ever lived without. The improved screens for reports and database design are good examples of this.

Although the server interface has changed, and although the admin console has been rewritten, one criticism that could still be leveled at this version of the product is that it lacks a degree of elegance in its look and feel. Since there is so much that can be done to skin FileMaker’s appearance independently, this is not a huge drawback. Dozens of templates – as usual – come with FileMaker Pro 9 as with earlier versions. But as Apple’s look takes the leaps it does, perhaps we can hope for something more Leopard-looking next time.

You should not hesitate to upgrade to FileMaker Pro 9 if you already have FileMaker databases in operation and want to take advantage of these new features… more of a jump from version 8 than it was from 7 to 8. Nor should you think twice, if you ever use PHP or systems like Oracle and MySQL which work via conventional SQL. Note that the licensing for peer-to-peer use has been ‘relaxed’ slightly (the previously lowered limit of allowed connections has risen again to nine) so small group users may benefit. And if you are considering or have begun to venture into data-driven, PHP-architected websites and/or need the enhanced scripting functionality offered by this version, you should definitely consider this upgrade.

If you’re new to cross-platform databases and want to swim with the big fish yet retain the ease and elegance of an outstanding database management system, which at the same time is contained and easy enough to use in simpler situations, then FileMaker Pro 9 is still the best option for OS X. It is well-supported, will grow with you and reliable enough to trust all your most valuable data to. Unhesitatingly recommended.

There’s already a ‘Missing Manual’ book (ISBN: 0-596-51413-1, $34.99) available to make up for the fact that FileMaker Pro 9 doesn’t have its own strong documentation. This is a venerable series, on which Think Secret has often reported favorably. In this almost 800-page long book Geoff Coffey and Susan Prosser really do provide great coverage of the database for beginners (17% of the text of the book is devoted to ‘the basics’; 23% to layouts – which is particularly useful given the emphasis of this latest version on versatility of formatting). They then move on to the intricacies of tables (14%), a lengthy section on calculations – often overlooked and/or underused even by experienced FileMaker users. 15% on scripting – most useful and revealing with lots of good tips. And finally 17% on security and integration. Just as useful is a ten-page appendix of FileMaker error codes. There isn’t a great deal on the new, FileMaker Pro 9-specific functionality; but this is a good place to start and will answer the questions of most users from beginner to early advanced It’s well laid-out, indexed and cross-referenced, the examples are clear and the language lucid and helpful. Also recommended.

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