FileMaker 8.0 – the old friend acquires new skills

The FileMaker desktop database package has been enhanced yet again

It can be a jolting experience to return to an application you last used seriously 15 years ago and see what the intervening versions have added by way of new functionality.

I used an early flat-file version of FileMaker on a second-generation Apple Mac to set up Computerworld’s first historical database of stories in the 1980s. Thankfully, that’s all handled by professionals in Auckland these days and I just log in to it. It’s done in Lotus Notes and is ... er ... mostly successful. The shortcomings of Notes are not the subject of this review.

The FileMaker 8.0 experience is mostly positive. Enough of the familiar graphically-assisted table definition process has been preserved for anyone re-entering to slip smoothly into setting up a simple database, and then menu flip between developer and user views to check it looks right.

When passing beyond flat-file to link more than one table, it helps to have a background in relational databases, but, for non-initiates, the manual’s explanation of the basics is commendably clear. The screen metaphor for linking common fields between tables is equally convenient — it can be specified with a command, or by simply drawing a line between the field entries on a data-structure diagram.

FileMaker also permits non-equality conditions on the link. One can specify, for example, that the customer number in the invoice should be less than the number in any of the related line items. I couldn’t think of a meaningful use for this capability, but it’s there. The FileMaker package provides a number of pre-programmed databases that users can adapt to their needs, or simply use as illustrative examples, such as an email campaign management database.

There’s the beginning of an audit trail by way of yellow “sticky” notes that can be attached to a newly inserted data element or relationship, indicating who was responsible for the change.

The latest release adds the ability to translate database tables into an Excel table or pdf — a boon for those potential recipients who don’t have FileMaker themselves. A newly added fast-mail function allows complete tables or parts of tables to be attached to emails and sent to colleagues. It all works smoothly and, as befits a cross-platform tool, picked up my preferred Eudora mail client with no trouble. Plus, it allowed me to view the potential emails in my outbox before okaying the bulk send.

The metaphor of a set of linked tables should be easy enough for most to work with, and there is a wealth of graphical tools to enhance the appearance of the forms used to enter or view data, but FileMaker also has the ability to create a portal into the data using the metaphor of a multiply-tabbed folder. Enter an employee’s name on one tab and every­one working for the same company, or possessing similar skills, turns up listed on adjacent tabs.

The newly added Fast Match capability, which displays with a click in a conventional table all items that meet a certain field-value criterion, is potentially very useful for on-the-fly exploration of data.

Scripting facilities are also available to link commands for automatic execution — another plus for the end-user who doesn’t want to get involved with the technicalities.

Security provisions are not hugely sophisticated, but FileMaker does provide the basic ability to “protect” databases and individual data items to serveral permission levels.

The one feature of the interface I found irritating was the use of obscure symbols without helpful mouse-over pop-up labels to remind you what button does which task.

The manual, in its rather chatty tone, reminds you that the button for portal creation is “the one that looks like a seatbelt” — a rectangle with two lines across it — but it’s not the kind of association that sticks in the mind. Users, particularly those who work with Windows, or on well-behaved websites with “alt-tags”, are accustomed to discreet pop-up textual help.

FileMaker’s standard help is verbose, and searching tends to bring up help on obscure topics rather than on the basics. But that’s par for the course in most desktop software. The researcher who discovers instantly helpful help will be well rewarded.

All-in-all, this was a pleasing reacquaintance with an old friend who has acquired a bunch of impressive new skills. This application won’t be removed from my machine immediately after review.

FileMaker 8.0 could become my small database of choice.

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