FileMaker's Upgrade Dilemma

by Gerry Blackwell

FileMaker Pro 9 Advanced offers a lot for anyone new to database applications. But unless you're an application developer, most current customers can scratch upgrading off the to-do list.

FileMaker Inc. doesn’t let much rust grow on FileMaker Pro, its easy-to-use relational database management software. Less than a year after FileMaker Pro 8.5 comes version 9.0, with some useful, if not earth-shattering, new features and enhancements.

We reviewed FileMaker Pro 9 Advanced, a stand-alone edition with special features for application developers. The best of the new features in the stand-alone editions of FileMaker may be compelling enough on their own to justify the cost of upgrading for some people. The capability to link to an existing SQL database and bring its data into a FileMaker solution is one example.

One good thing about Version 9: the prices haven’t gone up. If you’re a new buyer, FileMaker Pro 9 offers better value than ever. Of course, if you’re already a customer, you only get the new features by paying more. Pricing for the five new products (new/upgrade) goes like this: FileMaker Pro 9 ($299/$179), FileMaker Pro 9 Advanced ($499/$299), FileMaker Server 9 ($999/$599), FileMaker Server 9 Advanced ($2499/$1499), FileMaker Mobile 8 ($69/$19).

We had an excellent out-of-the-box experience with FileMaker. The program installed quickly and without problems on our Core 2 Duo Dell laptop. And the new features, for the most part, worked as advertised.

Important new features in the stand-alone editions include an easy-to-use quick-start screen that opens on launch and easier conditional formatting of fields. You can also e-mail a link to a hosted database, append multiple database reports or records to an existing PDF file and receive automatic notification of software updates. This version also improves on the scripting and screen layout tools.

Quick start screenshot
Filemaker Pro 9 Advanced offers a simple QuickStart page that makes the product less intimidating for casual and first-time customers.

The Advanced edition we tested includes additional features to help developers more easily design, debug, modify and maintain databases, but there is little new here since FileMaker Pro 8.5. Some features have been enhanced and a new layer of password security on the Script Debugger has been added.

SQL Live
As we briefly mentioned earlier, the most substantial of the new features in FileMaker Pro 9 is the capability to link to SQL (Structured Query Language) databases such as those stored on servers running Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle operating systems. In past FileMaker versions, you could import SQL data into a table. Now you can set up live links so that when the SQL database is updated, the table in the FileMaker solution is also updated automatically.

If you have access to, for example, a company-wide SQL HR or financial database, you could integrate that data into a FileMaker solution and, given the appropriate permissions, work with, modify or add the data to the SQL database. The big benefit is that any new data added to the centrally-managed SQL repository – a new employee record, for example – automatically shows up in your FileMaker solution without you having to do anything.

FileMaker claims that the setup of this feature is easy, and compared to setting up database links in some programs, or importing SQL data in previous versions of this program, it is. But it’s still an eight- or nine-step process with some complex dialogs. And requirements include things like ensuring that OBDC (Open Database Connectivity) drivers (enabling software) are installed on your computer. This may be beyond the competence of many small businesses.

Highlighting Key Data
The new conditional formatting feature makes it easier to set conditions under which field data is visually highlighted to draw attention to it. If monthly sales are less than 30 percent of target half way into the month, for example, the field might appear in bold type or be underlined and in a bright color to make it stand out on the screen.

It was possible in previous versions to do this, but it meant creating additional fields using often-complex calculation functions. Now anyone can apply conditional formatting to an existing object or field using a fairly simple dialog.

In the dialog, you choose the text formatting and color and add conditions. FileMaker provides 20 customizable pre-set conditions – the value in the field is between x and y, for example, the value is less than or greater than a number and so on. Or you can create your own conditions using any of the standard mathematical and logical calculation functions in the program.

Quick start screenshot
One of improvements in Filemaker Pro 9 Advanced is an easier way to conditionally format various fields within a database.

Connecting with Others
The capability to e-mail somebody else a link to a database running on your computer could be useful if you create a FileMaker solution and then want to share it with colleagues. In past versions, you could share databases using the peer-to-peer networking capabilities built into the program, but it required advanced knowledge to set it up.

Now it only takes a few mouse clicks – seven actually. And when a recipient clicks the link in the message you send, the FileMaker database runs on his or her screen. Two potentially limiting requirements: people who receive an e-mailed link must have FileMaker Pro running on their computers, and the solution must be open on your computer.

If you want to share data with somebody who doesn’t have FileMaker, you can convert records or reports into a PDF (Portable Document Format) file and send it to them. FileMaker made this very easy to do in a past version. Now it has enhanced this feature by letting you append reports to an existing PDF even long after creating it. You could, for example, create a PDF with the latest monthly or quarterly sales figures and when the next period’s data is ready, you could append it to the original file so your recipients have a complete record in one file.

Still on the theme of sharing data, another potentially useful new feature is the capability to have objects – fields, labels, tables, etc. – in a FileMaker layout auto-size themselves to accommodate the size and resolution of the viewer’s screen. You can also set options to maintain a constant distance between an object and the sides of the window, no matter what size the window, and to fit a layout to the size of paper when printing.

This is a feature that will probably be of more interest to FileMaker developers. It requires going deeper into the options menus in Layout mode than the average person will likely want to go.

For Neophytes
FileMaker added the all-new Quick Start screen, a box with clickable buttons and links that pops up when you launch the program, to make the product less intimidating for casual and first-time users. It saves them from being confronted with a blank work area and having to immediately grapple with the menu interface.

The three quick-start buttons open dialogs for creating a database, opening an existing database or “learning more” – getting access to documentation, help files, community forums and so on.

Serving Instant Web Sites

FileMaker also offers a server edition of FileMaker Pro with a feature designed to let you publish a FileMaker database to the Web with – the company claims – relative ease.

The feature is meant to automatically generate a set of Web pages with information continually and automatically updated from the underlying FileMaker database.

If you click Create Database, the dialog gives you the choice of creating an empty database that you design from scratch, or selecting one of the included Starter Solutions, such as a ready-formatted expense report, document library or e-mail campaign manager. If you click Open Database, FileMaker lets you see recent or favorites files first.

Frankly, this feature is no big deal. It provides a small convenience and possibly a psychological advantage for beginners. If you don't need or want this feature, you can turn it off so that the program launches into the main interface.

There are always some “enhancements” in a new software version that make you wonder, ‘Well, why didn’t they do this long ago?’ Providing automatic notification when software updates are available rather than making you check your Web site periodically is a case in point. Many, if not most, other business programs already do this.

Bottom Line
FileMaker Pro 9 Advanced is not a must-have upgrade for every user, but it does include a few new features that will make it attractive to many – SQL database linking and easier peer-to-peer database sharing and conditional formatting. The question is, can you justify the cost of upgrading, especially if you have multiple user licenses.

If you’re looking for your first relational database management program, FileMaker is a good bet. It’s definitely easier to use than Microsoft Access -- its main competitor. And the new features in version 9 make it better value than ever.

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.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Oct 31st 2007
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