GPSolo Technology & Practice Guide - June 2006

PRODUCT REVIEW

FileMaker Pro 8

I have used FileMaker for many years. I consider it one of the best and most user friendly database programs on the market. Through the years, FileMaker evolved from a Macintosh program to one that works well on both the Macintosh OS and Windows. It became network compatible, and a server edition became available. A developer edition also came out to facilitate using the program as the basis for creating other complex programs, such as contact management, calendaring, and billing programs. As it evolved, it became, in my opinion, one of the best, most flexible, and easiest to use relational databases available on any platform.

Last year, FileMaker released a major upgrade to the software as FileMaker Pro 7. That upgrade modified the structure of the database files, so that database structures built with all earlier versions required conversion and, in some cases, reprogramming. Because of the significance of the upgrade last year, we did not expect a major upgrade to FileMaker Pro this year—a minor update, perhaps, but nothing more. Our friends at FileMaker had different ideas. They cranked out another significant upgrade to the software and called it FileMaker Pro 8. Although this year’s upgrade does make excellent improvements, those changes consist more of refinements than structural modifications. As a result, upgrading to FileMaker Pro 8 from FileMaker Pro 7 does not require conversion or rebuilding of the database structures, as did last year’s move to FileMaker Pro 7.

Caveat: Databases built in earlier versions of File-Maker Pro (version 6 and lower) that have not yet been upgraded to the structure introduced in version 7 will need to be converted to that structure to run. The conversion process can sometimes be painful. Most database structures will convert easily using the conversion utility built into the program. Those structures that the utility cannot convert will require rebuilding to comply with the FileMaker Pro 7 structure, which has continued in FileMaker Pro 8.

In general terms, last year’s upgrade primarily facilitated the developer’s use of the program to build other programs. Although it helped the end user’s experience somewhat, it did much more for the developer’s experience. This year’s upgrade refines the changes from last year and enhances the end user’s experience. Think of it as smoothing the rough edges. I do not mean to suggest that the new version offers nothing to the developer, only that the changes focus more on the end user’s experience.

From the end user’s perspective, the most significant changes in version 8 relate to the interaction with Excel, the ability to generate Excel and PDF files, and the related ability to share information generated by FileMaker Pro 8 with individuals who do not use or have FileMaker Pro 8. Version 8 also offers better data integrity with auto-complete data entry and visual spell checking. The new version reflects improvements in the sort and search functions and improved speed of information recovery.

The new PDF maker included in FileMaker Pro 8 provides control over the properties of the PDF, including the ability to use security features such as password protection. In the past, the program could import Excel files but not save to Excel. Now users can save and send information as an Excel file.

The new auto-complete allows faster and more accurate data entry by allowing the program to fill in field content automatically based on previous entries or value lists included in the structure of the database.

The use of the mouse wheel allows users to scroll more rapidly through records and files.

Historically, FileMaker Pro could not e-mail field contents other than by saving them and then picking them up. The new version includes a Fast Send feature, which allows users to move the cursor to a field and then choose “Export Field Contents” to attach the contents to a message.

With this upgrade, FileMaker changed the name of its developer edition of the program from “Developer” to “Advanced.” FileMaker explains that change as reflective of the fact that this version helps advanced users as well as professional developers. The Advanced version has all of the features of FileMaker Pro 8. In addition it incorporates modifications to facilitate debugging and trouble-shooting. It also allows for the maintenance and modification of databases by importing multiple tables and more easily moving fields, scripts, script steps, and tables. FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced also offers the ability to modify and customize FileMaker menus, allowing the renaming, adding, or deleting of menu items; the customizing of keyboard shortcuts; and the execution of scripts from menu items. The program also allows the addition or deletion of complete menus. Publishing FileMaker databases on the web has also been enhanced.

In working with the Advanced version and exploring the new features, the rationale for changing the name from the “Developer” to the “Advanced” version became clear. The ease of working with the structuring pieces of the new Advanced version makes it easier for a user to create a database that works well and employs some of the more sophisticated features. As a result, I think it far more likely that users other than professional developers will find the features of the Advanced version worth the cost.

The changes to the creation of tabs make things much easier. In the past, using multiple tabs meant creating multiple layouts, each with its own tab. Then you would need to create scripts to navigate across the tabs. Changing common elements, such as a banner, would require modifying each of the layouts. Now, you can save time and effort by creating a single layout with multiple tabs. This allows you to change common elements in one place. Setting up the tabs means simply entering the tab name and choosing its appearance and alignment.

The new Advanced version allows point-and-click layout alignment. In the past, you had to change the alignment preferences to change the way a layout object aligned. Now you simply select the object and click the alignment you want.

The new Advanced version also facilitates the importation of tables. You can create tables on the fly, without having to first manually define the fields and options in order to receive the table data.

I worked with the Advanced version for this review. I did not work with the standard FileMaker 8 version. The software installed easily and without problem, both as a new installation and as an upgrade.

Once installed, FileMaker Pro 8 immediately recognized, accessed, and used FileMaker Pro 7 databases. It was not surprising that it would not work with unconverted databases created in FileMaker Pro version 6 and lower, but I experienced no problem whatsoever with FileMaker Pro 8’s use of a database converted from the earlier versions. Adding records, sorting, and printing reports worked exactly as expected.

Several years ago, FileMaker introduced FileMaker Mobile to allow you to use portions of your database on your PDA and synchronize data between the PDA and your computer. I started using FileMaker Mobile for that purpose with version 6. FileMaker has released FileMaker Mobile 8 to ensure full compatibility with FileMaker Pro 8. FileMaker Mobile 8 installed easily, and I have had no problems at all with the interaction between FileMaker Mobile 8 and FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced or with the link between the PDA and the computer. FileMaker Mobile 8 works on both the Palm and Pocket PC platforms on the PDA side and with the Macintosh and Windows operating systems on the computer side.

FileMaker Pro 8 costs $299 as a new purchase or $179 as an upgrade from version 6 or 7. FileMaker Pro Advanced costs $499 as a new purchase or $299 as an upgrade from FileMaker Pro 6, 7, or 8, or from FileMaker Developer 7. FileMaker Mobile 8 costs $69 as a new purchase or $19 as an upgrade (download). FileMaker Server 8 costs $999 new, $299 as an upgrade from FileMaker Server 7, and $599 as an upgrade from FileMaker Server 6 or 5.5. FileMaker Server 8 Advanced costs $2,499 new or $749 as an upgrade from FileMaker Server 7 Advanced.

In addition to offering its software for sale, the File-Maker website ( www.filemaker.com) has an area where users can locate and identify preestablished solutions to problems. Many of the solutions can be downloaded at no cost, and they can be used as is or modified to suit the user’s needs. Consultants and others also publish and sell FileMaker solutions; the end user can purchase and use those solutions or hire the consultant to modify them.

For those who do not have a good general database program (or who have one but want to consider one that might be better), FileMaker Pro 8 represents a good value for a great program. For those using earlier versions of FileMaker Pro (especially those who did not upgrade to version 7), the new upgrade gives you substantially better and more user-friendly performance.

 

Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is the special issue editor of GPSolo’s Technology & Practice Guide and editor-in-chief of the Technology eReport. He also teaches business law in the graduate and undergraduate divisions of the Business School of the University of Phoenix. He can be reached at jallenlawtek@aol.com.

 

 

 

 

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