FileMaker Pro 9 Advanced
24th Jul 2007 | 23:00
A few useful new tools, a few not so useful tools
FileMaker Pro's big selling point is that it's an easy way to create powerful relational databases and attractive front-ends for working with these databases. With a little effort, you can create flexible systems for running whole businesses, managing invoicing and human resources, and all a lot more quickly than you could rustle up the scripted web pages you'd need to work with MySQL, for example.
Once upon a time, FileMaker (or Claris, as it was called back then) used to do big releases of FileMaker Pro. These were infrequent and each time there was an extraordinary number of new features.
Version 7 of FileMaker Pro was probably the last release that could be called big: version 8 was a series of small but important usability improvements, while 8.5 was little more than a paid-for universal binary upgrade with a couple of extra features thrown in. Unfortunately for most users, version 9 is another of these iterative releases; its new features are welcome but not monumental.
FileMaker has two big communities to please: the professional database developers who need powerful features for generating databases and integrating them with enterprise systems; and the talented amateurs who just want to create something that's easy to use with the minimum of fuss.
Version 9 has two new main features for the everyday user: conditional formatting and self-adjusting layouts. Conditional formatting lets you change the way an item on a database layout looks depending on certain conditions.
You can alter font, colour, size and various other attributes - handy for making a field go red if your client goes into the red, for example. It's very easy to create these formatting conditions using the iTunes-esque pull-down menus - so easy, in fact, FileMaker would do well to transfer this approach to things such as the calculation field definitions section.
Self-adjusting layouts are another good idea. Before, whenever you put a field down on a FileMaker layout, you had to make it as big as it would ever need to be. If you underestimated, your data would be squished into whatever size you'd allocated.
Now, whenever you drop a field onto your layout, the Info palette gives you the option to make the field auto-adjust in any direction, so if there's more space available with the current window size, the field will expand to fill it.
This comes in particularly useful with the Web Viewer layout objects that FileMaker introduced in version 8.5. These require you to define an area on your layout that will let you view a web page. The obvious flaw is that most web pages are designed to fit a page, not a small box.
While FileMaker Pro sometimes provided scrollbars for the web viewer, fluid layouts such as Google Maps' would get crushed into the box with no way to scroll around.
That's still true in version 9, and although there have been updates to allow the Web Viewer to deal with https web pages properly, and provide a progress bar and status messages, there's still no way to ensure there will always be scrollbars. You also have to create your own backwards, forwards and refresh buttons, unless you can trust your users to right-click for options on your viewer.
By making your Web Viewer automatically adjustable, you can at least give it as much space as you have available, so your user stands a chance of being able to see some of the web page. However, you'll need to design your layout carefully to ensure that fields don't start overlapping when you resize the screen.
Other features slowly crawl down the ladder of general-purpose usefulness. Multiple undos for text editing should be a lifesaver for certain users, providing they don't click outside the text field.
The PDF Script Step now allows you to append pages to an existing PDF, which should come in useful if you want to create a PDF from multiple found-sets of records or multiple layouts. You can specify the default tab on a tabbed layout object as well as its width.
A new Quick Start screen is essentially just a prettier version of 8.5's equivalent screen and the toolbar has a couple of extra buttons for data export. You can also specify which fields the spellchecker will work with and arrange your Scripts menu into folders.
There are new Avery labels, and you can email a link to a hosted version of FileMaker, and calm your heart as you hear that there's now a Learn button on critical dialogs that takes you to FileMaker's Help system if you click it. There's more web help too, and a Software Update function.
Other changes are geared towards the high-end developer. There's a really rather good external SQL Source Manager that makes it almost as easy to access other databases from within FileMaker as it is to access FileMaker databases.
There are a few more calculation functions, including status functions for the current temporary folder and the host version. A 'self' function that uses the current object's value will take some thinking to find a use for, but will come in handy for multi-object functions - maybe.
For hardcore developers, the more expensive Advanced version of FileMaker Pro now includes an improved Script Debugger that can be run in several windows and that has new functions for stopping, starting and debugging scripts.
The Data Viewer has been similarly enhanced to provide a view of all the variables used by the current script, not just the ones you've asked to watch. These make debugging easier than before, but won't do it for you.
Nevertheless, although FileMaker is clearly taking a leaf out of the books of other mainstream database vendors - particularly through things like its new internet activation system - there are still traces of Apple attention-deficit DNA in its system. Bugs that have been around since version seven, such as the poor handling of fonts at small point sizes, are still here.
And many of the newer functions are still too complicated: it's a mark of FileMaker's move away from regular users that it regards adding functions for arccosine and arcsine calculations to FileMaker Pro as being more important than creating a function for converting the carriage-return delimited text that comes from its list function into a proper text list ('First, second and third', for instance) - something of far greater importance to smaller developers in terms of development time.
If you have FileMaker Pro 8.5, there's little in version 9 to justify the cost, even though the 'new feature' list is quite long. Some of the functions are useful (the conditional formatting, External Sources Manager and adjustable layouts option), though most are unnecessary or simple tweaks to existing functions.
But newcomers will still find this the easiest and most powerful database management software for Mac users.