FileMaker Pro 4.0 Beta
Tuesday 14th October, 1997
Following Filemaker pro 3.0 was always going to be an uphill struggle for Claris - but judging by the beta release of version 4.0 we tested, the company has done an creditable job. All the changes are either inspired, reasonable, or justifiable. But hardened FileMaker Pro 3.0 developers probably have a fairly clear wish-list of features that should have been included, and this is where version 4.0 falls down.
The latest FileMaker incarnation is a full HTTP Web server. The grunt work is done by Web Companion - a new plug-in that provides HTTP services. To publish a database, simply ensure your Mac is connected to the Internet, fire up FileMaker Pro 4.0, and open the database. With the Sharing dialog box you can specify that you want to share the database using Web Companion - a series of straightforward dialog boxes allow you to choose which fields will be made available in the four standard views. Your database will then be available to all and sundry via the Internet. You can publish your data across the Web, allowing customers or intranet users to add, amend, and review it using nothing more than their standard Web browser.
For simple single-screen database applications, one copy of FileMaker Pro 4.0 and a handy intranet could eliminate the need to install FileMaker on every machine in the office.
Although instantly available, the standard interface provided by Web Companion is rather drab. However, it provides the full complement of standard FileMaker tools.
Complex HTML Claris has provided the more seasoned Web developer with a new set of HTML tags, grouped together as CDML (Claris database mark-up language). This allows you to create custom Web pages which display FileMaker fields and perform the usual database actions using standard HTML layouts and controls. The difference in learning curves between auto-publishing using Web Companion and creating custom Web pages using CDML is considerable, but Claris provides some help in the form of a CDML tool (itself a FileMaker database) containing template data. It also provides cut-and-paste HTML code for the various fields, layouts and control definitions based on the specific database you select.
The version of the CDML tool included with the beta was very rough. However, the CDML tags are powerful tools, and put into question the use of tools such as Tango, and the need for CGI scripts to interact with FileMaker.
With the introduction of two new scripting steps - Send Mail, which sends an email via SMTP, and Open URL, which opens a Web page in a browser of your choice - Claris has firmly declared FileMaker Pro 4.0 as an Internet tool for other mundane non-publishing Internet tasks. For those already struggling with CGI scripts, or who want to bring more interactivity to lifeless Web pages or send large amounts of data via email, it’s a godsend. But the majority of FileMaker users and developers don’t want to go anywhere near the Web with their data, and for these people, new features in version 4.0 are few and far between.
Importing Excel First on the list of non-Web-related offerings is the ability to import Excel sheets in the same way as you would import a ClarisWorks database. Most people would assume this was already included in version 3.0 (in fact, if you’d asked a Claris employee at Apple Expo last year whether or not you could import data from Excel, they would have said yes - albeit as a SYLK, DIF, or a CSV file). That FileMaker couldn’t import Excel sheets was always an oversight, so this could be termed a bug fix.
Also new to version 4.0 is the ability to sort data from a related file within a file relationship. In other words, your data displayed within a portal can be displayed in a sorted order. The problem is that you must specify the sort order as part of the relationship, and you can only have one sort order per relationship. So while you can now provide portal information in a sorted order, you’re not able to sort a portal in a user-defined way. As this was among the top three most requested features in a recent FileMaker newsgroup discussion, it’s something of a disappointment.
Version 4.0 now shares with other Claris packages the ability to rotate layout objects (text, fields, images) through 90‚àû increments. Again, given the ClarisWorks-like ancestry of the drawing tools, it’s surprising this also wasn’t included in version 3.0. So, again, it’s at worst a bug fix and at best catching up with the drawing elements in other Claris packages.
There are a number of other smaller tweaks to the interface. The most notable is the regrouping of preferences. The spelling options are now classed as Preferences, and the Preferences themselves have been divided into Applications, Documents and Plug-ins. A Define Value Lists command has been added which saves you the trouble of having to go through the field format box to get to the Value Lists dialog box.
This release of FileMaker is often more notable for what hasn’t been included than what has. FileMaker Pro 3.0 was - and is - a fine product. It made the leap from a flat-file database system with the ability to do information look-ups between files, to a fully relational system, without losing any of its exemplary ease of use and clarity of layout. It gave FileMaker designers the ability to create custom solutions for real business problems in a way that customers could see and appreciate. And it made it possible to alter the design of a database in front of a client on the fly, right down to the fields and file structure.
The problems with version 3.0 arise from the fact that creating database systems easily doesn’t equate to the easy maintenance of database systems easily. FileMaker developers have found that having created a large database, it becomes unwieldy and unmanageable as there are no database management tools in FileMaker Pro.
You can’t copy and paste between scripts, or even copy and paste scripts between files. This is due to the way Claris has simplified the act of creating scripts in the first place, and you can use the clumsily implemented templates to a limited degree. But copy and paste are two of the most fundamental actions on a Mac - if you can copy and paste button objects between FileMaker layouts and even files, then why not scripts?
FileMaker also can’t deal with external files in a developer-sympathetic way. It would be great to be able to create text files from a script and save them to a file whose path is calculated in some way rather than being set in the script editor. It would be even better to be able to deal with pictures in a scriptable and straightforward way rather than having to navigate an import dialog box.
It’s also difficult to document a FileMaker database. You can print out all the script and field definitions, but the format is hard to read, making it look like an afterthought.
One of FileMaker’s great strengths is the integration of data, script elements, and layouts into a single file. But if you’re working on a large multi-user company database, it would be better to separate the data from the rest to make updating the database quicker than having to export and re-import data.
If Claris had implemented even one of these items, we might be talking about a boldly dynamic FileMaker Pro 4.0, rather than a misnamed Web-centric FileMaker Pro 3.5. But, unfortunately, Claris hasn’t.
FileMaker Pro - at least in its Windows incarnation - has carved out a niche market: single- or two-user systems. It may be a really huge niche market, and perhaps being able to auto-publish Web pages and import Excel sheets is what this niche Windows market wants. If they want a big, robust, easy-to-maintain (but a pain to set-up) database, they always have Microsoft Access - which comes with Microsoft Office Professional and is scalable across a large business - to fall back on.
After all, if you ask the average power Windows user what they use for a database, they’ll tell you that while FileMaker is easier to use, creates attractive layouts, and is great for single-user stuff, Access is more developer-friendly and gives you the facility to manage larger database systems - and who cares if it’s not cross-platform? This is a shame, because Mac-based businesses can’t use Access, so they’re caught between sticking with cheap, easy-to-build FileMaker, and the price and lengthy development time of Omnis or 4D.
So while it’s in every Mac user’s interest that FileMaker becomes more acceptable to the Windows market, perhaps it’s time for Claris to add some grown-up database management tools. In this way, Mac users can stop wishing they had some of the Access tools, and the business community can stop shunning Macs because they don’t run Access.
##Not making the grade
Despite the improvements and additions that Claris has made to its flagship, you can’t help wondering whether it fully deserves a whole 1.0 revision number. Yes, the Web serving is great. Yes, rotated fields and Excel importing are useful tools. But there’s a huge list of changes and improvements that FileMaker developers have demanded which, with the exception of sorted portals, haven’t been met. What we’re really looking at here is FileMaker 3.5. Of course, we’ll all still upgrade, but let’s hope Claris reflects this view in the upgrade price.
|Get Further Info|
|Pros||Automatic Web publishing ˜ Support for new CDML tags ˜ Sortable relationships|
|Cons||No cut and paste in scripts ˜ Poor database management tools ˜ Poor external text and image file support|
|Originally Published||MacUser, Volume: 13, Issue: 19, p46|