FileMaker Pro 5.0 beta
Thursday 28th October, 1999
It’s a hard thing for a FileMaker fan to admit, but the latest version of FileMaker’s eponymous flagship application may seem like nothing more than a spring clean. Version 5.0 is the company’s attempt to put the program’s house in order, which, in itself, is no bad thing.
Some FileMaker users have argued that FileMaker Pro 4.0 (and the ODBC upgrade 4.1) should really been have been called 3.5 (and perhaps 3.6). The changes in database functionality were minimal (sorted portals, plug-in architecture and so on), with the major difference being browser integration through the Web Companion plug-in. Most developers would only revise the version number by one (that is, from 3 to 4) if the file format changed. And with version 4.0 of FileMaker, this wasn’t the case. Since the file format was the same, you could mix and match versions of 3.0, 4.0 and 4.1 on the same network, and have them all working on the same files. It also meant you could serve version 4.1 clients from version 3.0 of FileMaker Pro Server - so the server upgrade could wait a while longer.
The new file format
According to the engineers at FileMaker, version 5.0 is a complete rewrite of the application which sheds some of the legacy code (written in Pascal) that was stifling development, and moves it all to object-oriented C++. To non-programmers this may sound like a load of gobbledygook, but the upshot is that the application should be easier to maintain, and easier to supplement with new features.
There are a few further consequences. First, there could be more frequent upgrades to the product. Second, features which advanced users have been asking for might be more easily implemented. Third, a new code base generally implies a new file format, so version 4.0 files need to be converted to version 5.0 (which can be done on the fly, as happened between 2.1 and 3.0), and version 5.0 files can’t be opened by version 4.0 or version 3.0. This, in turn, means the Server version 3.0 won’t support the FileMaker Pro 5.0 format and will need an upgrade, as will the Development Kit.
Although MacUser hasn’t had any information on delivery dates from FileMaker on these two items, but they should be arriving imminently, as the company will want large workgroups to upgrade to the new version. However, unlike the version 3.0-to-4.0 upgrade, if one user switches to version 5.0, they all have to switch. So should you upgrade? If you use FileMaker to extract information from your data, develop FileMaker solutions within your office, or you use it to drive a Web site or company intranet, the answer is an unmitigated yes.
Once you’ve become accustomed to the rearranged - and more logical - menu setup, there are plenty of new features, especially if you’re a Microsoft Office user. FileMaker is at great pains to point out how compatible FileMaker Pro 5.0 will be with Office 2000 (the Windows equivalent of Office 98). For Mac users, this essentially means better integration with Office - that is, improved import of Excel spreadsheets into FileMaker, and the inclusion of Office-like toolbars and palettes.
When you import an Excel spreadsheet into FileMaker 5.0, instead of being presented with a list of field names - f1, f2, f3 and so on - FileMaker correctly interprets the field names from the column names and creates field types (number, date, time, text) which are based on the data within the columns, rather than just using text fields. It also handles Workbooks properly, allowing you to specify which named sheet from a Workbook you want to open.
Version 5.0 now comes with toolbars. In Browse mode you’re provided with two - Standard and Text - and switching to Layout mode provides you with two more - Arrange and Tools. These can be torn off, acting as resizeable palettes or re-docked on the bottom, left and right of your monitor. Despite the same Microsoft look and feel, they can’t be customised by the user.
If you’re importing Excel data sheets, you’ll also get a look at the new layout style - Table View - which, in addition to the usual View As Form and View As List styles, presents you with a spreadsheet-like grid. You can move and resize columns, and the view will print, so users can print out data in a customisable spreadsheet format, although only those fields that appear on the layout proper can be accessed. The view is also available in Find mode, making multiple Find requests easier to enter and view.
Working with multiple versions of the same database structure is often a necessary evil, and here the new import features will make your life easier. When importing data into a file, you can now update matching records. You can also specify which fields need to match for records to be classed as matching. When FileMaker finds any matching records in your current database, it updates the non-matched fields to reflect the data you’re importing. More impressively, you have the option to ignore import data that doesn’t match existing records, or create records for non-matching data.
Those who are importing data within a large office environment may be interested to know that FileMaker now ships with built-in ODBC drivers, so FileMaker acts as a data source for other ODBC applications, as well as being able to import data from other ODBC sources. So instead of waiting for the IT department to get the information you want from the company mainframe, you can get at the data yourself.
If you want to organise your data into useful reports, the new Layout/Report Assistant makes setting up a very straightforward operation (see Using the new Layout Assistant, above). Layouts can be formatted using a choice of different colour schemes or Themes, with the Theme format files stored in the Themes folder within the FileMaker folder. However, there doesn’t seem to be a method for creating your own Theme files for storing your personal preferences. Hopefully FileMaker will include something to remedy this in the shipping version.
Enhanced Web publishing
One of the most spruced-up features in FileMaker Pro 5.0 is the Web Companion (see Web Companion, p51). It isn’t multiple-threaded yet, but it still feels nippier than the previous version. The important changes are to the auto-publishing of databases.
Unlike the previous version, where you had just one option, you can now choose between a number of different page layout styles. Some of these styles match the Layout/Report Assistant options - Soft Gray, Lavender, Blue and Gold 1&2, and Fern Green - implemented using Cascading Style Sheets, with a text-only option for older browser compatibility. There are also functional styles - Search Only and Entry Only.
The most impressive element of all this is that it manages to translate almost anything you care to include on your FileMaker layout directly onto the Web. However, apart from rotated text, the Web Companion can display related portals, but fails spectacularly if you try to enter portal data on a Web page. It also fails to handle conditional value lists correctly under similar circumstances. While this is disappointing, it’s not unexpected, and you’ll still be blown away when you see it work.
In addition to these excellent new layout features, there’s also a new Web security option. In the Web Companion Preferences dialog box you can now specify which IP addresses are allowed to access the Web Companion. Of course, this security is applied across any and all databases served from the same copy of FileMaker, so it’s a little more cumbersome than similar security methods that can be implemented in hand-coded CDML in this and the previous version.
However, the security via a FileMaker database option has also been revamped and given a new Web interface. If you want to publish databases containing QuickTime and QuickTime VR on the Web, you’re in luck. QTVR support is now built into container fields, and movies will display when a database is published on the Web.
FileMaker developers are quite a vociferous crowd, and with this version they’ve had at least some of their requests addressed. In terms of new functionality for Mac developers, there are three really important new features.
ScriptMaker has had a good going over, and you can now import scripts from other FileMaker Pro 5.0 files. This means you can shovel all your favourite scripts into a ‘library’ file and then import them into any new files you’re designing as you go along. If you’re using the same field names, things work fine; if not, you’re warned to check your scripts, and you’ll have to go through them checking your calculations and field choices. But it’s a lot quicker than doing it by hand, and you can import more than one script at a time. However, what developers really wanted was the ability to cut and paste scripts. The difference is really just implementation rather than functionality, but you still don’t have the ability to copy and paste script steps within the same file. If switching the code base to object-orientated C++ means anything, FileMaker should really ensure this is addressed in the next major revision.
Scripts can also be printed directly from the ScriptMaker dialog box (no more grovelling around in the Print dialog box), and printed scripts actually resemble what you see on the screen.
FileMaker 5.0 adds no new script steps as such, although some have been renamed - for example, most paste functions are now labelled as insert functions to match the renamed menu items. Others have new functionality -‚Ä†for example, View As includes the new Table view and has a Cycle option instead of Toggle. Given the changes to the user interface, however, there are a couple of obvious omissions - there appears to be no script step for showing or hiding toolbars, or indeed for adding tools to toolbars - but perhaps these problems will be addressed by plug-ins.
Next on the list of major improvements are conditional value lists (see Conditional values, above). By allowing value lists based on relational information instead of complete field contents, FileMaker has simplified the design of user interfaces - and hopefully spared us from the increasingly strange FileMaker hacks being produced by developers across the pond.
It may not seem much but, as any hard-working FileMaker developer will tell you, one of the most pleasing changes comes in the form of resizeable dialog boxes. Most dialog boxes can now be stretched, which may not sound that impressive, but for people who spend their working day scrunched up inside the tiny ScriptMaker, Calculation, and Field Definition dialog boxes of version 4.1, this is a godsend. Sadly, the Import dialog box isn’t one of the boxes that benefit from this enhancement.
There’s also a whole range of minor improvements. For example, you can now apply Photoshop-style embossing effects to objects on your layouts, and the Sharing dialog box now allows you to hide files from network users by simply clicking on a radio button, rather than using the underscore naming convention.
Built-in ODBC for getting information in and out of FileMaker is also a useful feature, especially if you’re up against Microsoft Access converts: you can pull data out of Access, manipulate it in FileMaker, and then have Access bring it back in. And if you’re only using Access as a front end for an SQL server, such as Oracle or BackOffice, there’s a chance you can cut out the middleman altogether. For cross-platform developers, there are also additional scripting possibilities through ActiveX Automation, although this isn’t quite the same thing as being scriptable via Visual Basic.
Fields of dreams Version 5.0 includes many useful additions, and although you can’t rate a beta version for speed, it looks to be a bit nippier than its predecessor. End users will love it, especially for the Report Assistant, and developers will appreciate the improvements. So should you jump and upgrade to version 5.0?
The answer is yes, but not an unqualified yes. If you’re a single user, or someone who shares files with just a few colleagues, then absolutely. But until FileMaker comes up with dates for a compliant server version, those relying on FileMaker Pro Server will have to wait.
Richard Dyce sees whether the latest FileMaker update will keep the database at the top of its field.
|Get Further Info|
|Pros||Imports scripts ˜ New Report Assistant ˜ Improved Web publishing|
|Cons||No cut and paste of script steps ˜ Non-customisable toolbars ˜ Not compatible with version 4.1 files|
|Originally Published||MacUser, Volume: 15, Issue: 20, p46|