FileMaker Pro Gets Even Better

FileMaker Pro Gets Even Better

John Clyman

FileMaker has long been a leader when it comes to making small-scale relational databases easy to develop, use, and deploy. FileMaker Pro 7 builds further on this already strong foundation with improved capabilities for managing relationships, more sophisticated user-access controls, and other subtle improvements.

Compared with Microsoft Access, FileMaker retains a distinctive edge in usability. Granted, Access has the advantage when it comes to implementing larger-scale applications that have heftier programmatic needs. But Version 7 extends FileMaker’s appeal farther into the midrange database space.

Previous versions supported relationships between tables, but they seemed like an afterthought grafted onto a predominantly flat-file view of the database world (where each table was stored in its own file, and establishing relationships meant linking between separate files). FileMaker has revised its data storage so that a single file now encapsulates a full set of database tables and the relationships between them. If you open a database created in an earlier version, the program prompts you to make a backup of the original and migrates the database to the new format.

The improved relationship support is especially evident in a slick new relationship editor that lets you visually create and manage links between fields in multiple tables. When you’re creating on-screen forms and report layouts, you now have access to fields related by any number of links from a given table, instead of just one.

Other less apparent benefits of the file-format change are an enlargement of the limit on the size of individual text fields to 2GB; an 8TB (essentially unlimited) ceiling for a database as a whole; and support for Unicode.

FileMaker’s ease of use remains its signature feature. The program successfully hides much of the complexity that can daunt novice database users and be tedious even for experienced developers. For example, establishing validation rules when you create a field is extremely straightforward and doesn’t require you to fuss with an expression editor, though one is available if you wish. Designing forms and reports, including embedded subreports (what FileMaker terms a portal) and complex summaries, is a breeze. Enhancements to the MDI (Multiple Document Interface) implementation mean you can create multiple windows onto a single database.

The software’s four basic WYSIWYG modes-for browsing records, finding records by example, laying out forms and reports, and previewing reports-haven’t changed. Nonetheless, we were again impressed with how quickly we were able to build simple applications. Dozens of starter database templates (including some new ones that show off the improved relational capabilities) made it easy to adapt prebuilt functionality in our testing. Starting from scratch yielded rapid results, too.

FileMaker’s new security model simplifies defining access privileges for users and groups while providing highly granular control if you need it. For example, you can define which individual fields in a table are editable, read-only, or entirely invisible for different users or categories of users.

Since full-blown database applications comprise more than just data entry forms and reports, FileMaker includes a scripting capability so you can add relatively complex behaviors to your database. With the included ScriptMaker tool, you progressively build a script by selecting from a list of actions and specifying their arguments in a manner somewhat like Access’s macro builder, though with additional program-flow options such as if-then branching, loops, and recursion. Though this approach is simple and unintimidating, it doesn’t offer the same level of flexibility as Access’s integrated Visual Basic programming environment. FileMaker also lacks some of Access’s other higher-end features, such as the ability to decouple the front-end GUI from the back-end database engine for scalability purposes.

When you’re ready to share your database with multiple users, FileMaker makes it easy. Up to five concurrent users can share a FileMaker file, or you can deploy a database on the Web with a couple of clicks. (FileMaker includes a Web server, so no additional configuration is required.) We found the resulting Web applications maintained a generally high degree of fidelity to the original rich-client version, although some script commands are not available. We also encountered a few other limitations, such as the inability to insert an image into a field designed to accommodate it.

Versions are available for both Macs and Windows PCs. The company has also released a separate FileMaker Developer 7 version ($499 list), which adds features such as script debugging. Additional flavors of the software—FileMaker Server 7, for serving databases to a larger number of simultaneous users, and FileMaker Mobile 7, for Palm and Pocket PC devices—are slated to ship this summer.

For rapid development of individual or workgroup database solutions, FileMaker Pro 7 is an outstanding choice. And for current FileMaker users, its dramatically improved relational capabilities make a strong argument for upgrading.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in PC Magazine.