FileMaker was always more user-friendly than its business level rival Microsoft Access - but version 13 manages to cosy up to both consumers and developers. With several key new features aimed at aesthetic database design and cross-platform deployment, this is the most accessible FileMaker yet.
First, the basics. FileMaker’s a database creation tool, that does much of the hard work for you. While other business level database creators have forms-based interaction as an afterthought, FileMaker Pro 13 leads with it.
By default, you create databases in layout view by adding fields with selectable data types. Effectively, the database is built as you create the form that others will use to fill it.
Dev types and logical thinkers can still opt to create databases in table view and - to be frank - that still feels more intuitive. When creating databases it’s more traditional to begin with a thorough plan in mind and a list of datasets that you’ll need.
Themes and Styles enable you to apply a universal look to a database, changing it radically with just a few clicks here and there.
We fully accept that’s a preference and FileMaker Pro caters for either mindset. However, there’s one new feature that definitely favours visual thinking and fast prototyping. Starter Solutions - database templates that you can use to create common database types.
FileMaker Pro 13: A New Start
Starter Solutions are a new feature with 16 different types of generic database at your disposable. They include task, project management, invoicing and product catalogue tools. In effect, FileMaker’s now bundled with a set of apps you build yourself - all with targeted business, domestic and educational uses.
The advantages are clear; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you create a new database. The databases are professionally designed, at both front and back end. And, they’re conceived as editable, allowing you to add or remove fields.
Two other features combine to make Starter Solutions part of a very productive workflow; custom themes and styles. The tool is already bundled with a bunch of themes you can use to re-skin your database front-end in a second - but if you crave fine aesthetic control, you can create your own.
The best approach is to take an existing theme and tweak the styles in it, then save it with a new name. The new theme can be applied just like the bundled themes, making it possible to create corporate styles or a series of apps with a similar look and feel.
Which brings us to Styles. A common enough concept in many productivity applications, Styles are sets of persistent formatting parameters. You can make all buttons with a specific style name have rounded corners, for example. Or you can set the font size and type for text fields. To change formatting across a theme, you change the style instead of editing each text field or button or any other styled object. Another time-saving feature missing from earlier versions.
Designing a database? A Starter Solution will help you past the difficult planning stage and go direct to entering data.
FileMaker Pro 13: Mobile Support
FileMaker Pro 13 lives in a multiplatform world and it accommodates that in several ways. Enhanced iOS support is one very clear marker of this. Users can access FileMaker databases using FileMaker Go for iPhone and iPad. When you start listing the application for this, it becomes difficult to stop... Taking registers in class on an iPad, stock checking with your iPhone, conference sign-ins, dynamic shopping lists and so on. Anywhere you needed data dynamically and mobile, this is going to work for you.
But that’s just one layer of enhanced mobile support. The layout editor supports field behaviours and types that act like native iOS, so your databases become almost indistinguishable from dedicated iOS apps. Pop-up objects can be programmed to display help information (a bit like Apple’s help system throughout the iOS iWork apps). There’s support for slide-control objects, gestures and touch-screen taps.
There’s even barcode reading support using the target device’s camera. On discovering that, our minds immediately went to work designing eBay and Amazon Market Place inventory apps - sorely needed in the App Store. Inventory’s just one application though. Barcodes scanning would enable you to enter record attendance at events, create ticket reading databases and even secure levels of access to data. All on mobile devices.
FileMaker Pro 13: WebDirect
Even bigger than better tablet support is a new, streamlined method for deploying FileMaker databases online - called WebDirect. Powered by HTML5, the new feature takes away the need to marry backend database to a frontend using an intermediary scripting language, like PHP or ASP.net. With WebDirect you design and develop everything using FileMaker Pro locally, then deploy it using FileMaker Server. The amount of coding required is significantly minimised.
Though FileMaker Server is a separate app and an additional expense with a cost per active connection, the feature is extremely forward looking - and makes sense of the emphasis on interface design in this version of the app. While FileMaker Pro has already been through a sufficient number of iterations to make its database design capabilities robust, this release is about positioning FileMaker Pro as a mobile application design tool for small business use. And it does it very successfully.
At the moment though, the pricing structure makes using FileMaker Server as a software-as-service development platform prohibitively expense. Each active, concurrent connection via a web browser incurs an additional cost. So, the technology and design tools are there - but, frustratingly, cost and licensing issues make it only really viable for small business teams and use.
On the other hand, users accessing databases for FileMaker Go on iOS devices get a free ride. The app is free and so are connections. So, larger deployments are still possible - as long as users access the database from a licensed copy of FileMaker on a computer or FileMaker Go on an iOS device.
If you’re already a FileMaker user, the upgrade shouldn’t take much thinking about. This version builds significantly on the offering you already have - especially if you need to deploy to mobile devices. If you’re looking for a database building tool for the first time, FileMaker Pro 13 has many attractions for you too. Not least of which are the powerful new layout features that make it easy to get started with with database creation.