Dyce & Sons Ltd.

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Filemaker Pro 5.5 Review

Saturday 26th May, 2001

The big claim to fame for FileMaker Pro 5.5 is that it’s written to support the ‘OS X environment’ and Windows 2000 ( as well as OS 9). Indeed, there’s jsut one CD in the box, that you can use to install a single copy on your platform of choice. The keyword phrase here of course is ‘written to support’ - which is the code phrase for a ‘carbonised’ application - as opposed to ‘written for’ - short-hand for a Cocoa-based application. As a carbonised application, FileMaker 5.5 benefits from the new Aqua interface, but you shouldn’t expect to see the sort of speed increase associated with some other Cocoa apps.

Web Changes

Since version 4, FileMaker has included the abiliy to publish your databases directly to the web, without the need for you to get your hands dirtied with HTML. Version 5 upped the ante with the introduction of Cascading Style Sheets to mimic user-layouts from your FileMaker files directly to the web. So it’s no surprise that perhaps the most obvious visual improvements in 5.5 are in the area of web support. Version 5.5 ships with a much improved multi-threaded, and therefore faster web companion. Support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) has been enhanced, so that layouts you create in FileMaker that are converted for the web are both more FileMaker-like (closer to your original layouts) and more web-like; button objects on your rendered web page now highlight on mouse-over, and you can sort your table views (now rendered using colours in your original layouts) just by clicking column headings.

The souped-up Web Companion also deals with scripts better. As well as adding to the number of single script steps that can be imitated on your web page, you can now use multi-step scripts (well 3-step scripts anyway) as actions for buttons on your layouts; provided that you’re using steps that are capable of being translated to web functionality (there’s a list of compatible functions) you can attach scripts to buttons on your FileMaker layouts, and have them mimicked on your website. This is especially useful given Web Companion’s other new trick. When loading a web-published site for the first time, FileMaker will look through any startup script you’ve set in your FileMaker document’s preferences, and (where possible) interpret it in terms of the website. The main benefit is that by incorporating a ‘Toggle Status Area[Hide]’ step in your script, you can turn of the default interface frame that FileMaker puts up for auto-published databases. So you’ll need all that new functionality to give users the ability to search, view and edit via buttons you add to your layouts.

By the way, If you are more graphically orientated, then 5.5 also has improved support for QuickTime, especially if you are running on OS X; Since the new OS supports PDF as a native file format, you can now import Acrobat PDF documents into container fields.

Excel-lent Features

For those of us who spend our days swapping data between FileMaker and Excel, 5.5 comes with truly useful new feature. Select some cells in your Excel sheet, type a name for them into the name box, and save the sheet. Switch to FileMaker, do an import, and open the Excel file you’ve jsut saved. You now have the choice of importing the whole sheet, or just the cells you’ve named. Given Excel’s extensible ranges and list manager, this ‘Named Range Import’ feautre should make writing scripts tying the two applications together far easier.

Under the Hood

The upgrade is not just cosmetic, that is it uses Aqua and has better web support. The bulk of the changes to the application itself are under the hood, and more likely to be of interest to a developer or the person in the office who actually builds the databases in the first place. The most powerful new feature for designers and administrators is the addition of record level security. The passwording mechanisms in FileMaker have long been a thorn in developer’s sides, so much so that previously even the Web companion provided an alternative. The familar triumvirate of password, group, and access dialogs is still there, but the Password dialog now allows you to define dynamic calculations for checking whether a user can browse, edit and or delete a record. Using a standard calculations dialog to say who can do what on a record by record basis, has removed the need for whole swathes of scripting at a stroke. That’s not to say there aren’t inherent problems, but FileMaker does it’s best to warn you of potential problems, if say you set things up so that a user can delete records that she can’t even view. And what’s more, if you’ve passworded your web-shared files, record level security also operates on your FileMaker hosted website. Password settings now also include options for allowing users to alter their own passwords, and avoid being disconnected from a server after their allotted idle tme limit.

In Development

For day to day work, developers will be glad to hear that even more dialogs have been made resizable, and that FileMaker remembers the size and placement of dialogs, so no more having to guess what was in the layout you were working on.

New developer orientated feautres now include validation by field length, script steps for toggling the toolbars and setting serial numbers for reserialising records, and the ability the option to ‘Save Relative Path Only’ - no more faffing with the alias manager and FileMaker’s arcane file location rules over which version of a file gets opened. 10 new status functions open up new scripting possibilities; it’s now possible to get hold of the ‘CurrentFieldContents’, ‘CurrentFilePath’, ‘CurrentLayoutAccess’, ‘CurrentRecordAccess’, ‘CurrentStatusArea’, ‘CurrentView’, ‘CurrentWebSharing’, and even the ‘CurrentODBCError’. ODBC has been beefed up as well, with dynamic updating from FileMaker to remote ODBC sources; the fly in the ointment with this is that ODBC doesn’t work when running on OS X.

Bigger Picture

FileMaker’s latest flagship release is more of a tune-up than a re-design. By retaining file compatibilty with version 5 - files can be shared by the two versions, and 5.5. will connect to version 5 Server - FileMaker aren’t forcing the issue in the way they did with the 4.1 to 5.0 upgrade. Version 5.5 is a worthwhile upgrade for security conscous users, businesses that make use of web serving, and anyone making heavy use of ODBC. Develoeprs will probably want to hold off until Developer 5.5 is released in the summer. But there’s still no copying and pasting of scripts, and no separation of data and code. Roll on version 6?

Get Further Info
Pros†Improved Web publishing, Record-level security, OS X compliant
Cons†Design management still poor, No ODBC under OS X
Price£219, FileMaker Pro 5 (Mac/NT/Win95/98); £125 Upgrade (Mac/NT/Win95/98)