Review: FileMaker 13 Enables Powerful Custom Database Solutions with No Programming Required

Stuart Iler
May. 28 2014, 11:01PM EDT

The latest version FileMaker adds a mechanism for easily extending the venerable database platform for use with browsers and mobile—without the need for Web programming or app development. Based on our tests, Version 13 of FileMaker is a powerful yet simple tool for designing and publishing custom databases that will suit businesses’ specific data management requirements.

In December, FileMaker (an Apple subsidiary) released the 13th version of its FileMaker customizable database system. The platform is composed of a number of software products--including FileMaker Pro, FileMaker Go and FileMaker Server.

FileMaker Pro
This review begins with FileMaker Pro, the software product with which database solutions can be designed and created.

Layouts are a central part of FileMaker Pro. They determine how data is organized for a number of interactive tasks, such as displaying, entering, printing, reporting, and finding. Layouts can be
customized for particular types of tasks and for different devices. Layouts generally present data from one or more underlying tables in the database. It’s also possible to embed external Website content into a layout, or to import and/or export data in a number of file formats, including Excel, HTML, XML and comma-separated/tab-separated. (FileMaker also provides ODBC/JDBC support.)

As with other relational database systems, tables in FileMaker Pro are defined by fields (columns) of different data types, and contain one or more records (rows). As you would expect, tables can also be joined based on certain key fields (“relationships”). Interesting field types include the container, which can contain any kind of file, such as a picture or a PDF, and the calculation field, which derives its value from other fields based on a mathematical formula.

To simplify the task of getting started, FileMaker Pro provides 16 different templates – known as “starter solutions” – that span a gamut of use cases from assets to inventory to time billing. It is also possible to design a solution from scratch, which is the approach taken in this review.
As a very simple example to illustrate some of FileMaker Pro’s features, consider this application: a database of recipes. Relevant fields might include the recipe’s title, preparation time, cook time, number of servings, the type of recipe and, of course, the ingredients and the instructions. A picture would also add some visual appeal.

The screenshot below shows a sample layout for this database. It contains several text boxes, a couple of drop-down lists, a checkbox set and a container for the picture.
 

FileMaker Pro offers a number of features to simplify and expedite the process of creating layouts. One is the Field Picker, which lists fields from the database (see screenshot, below).
To add a field and a corresponding label to the layout, simply drag the desired field from the Field Picker onto the form. The label and field can then be moved or sized as necessary (either together or independently). The Field Picker also lets users, among other things, create new fields in the table without opening a separate window and search through a list of fields without the need for scrolling.
 

FileMaker Pro also contains a feature called Dynamic Guides, which greatly aids in positioning and sizing objects. Dynamic Guides are essentially lines that appear when moving objects or changing their size. As the mouse is moved, the lines give visual cues about alignment, height, widths, centering and spacing. Objects also “snap” to those cues. For example, in the picture below (from FileMaker Pro 13’s User’s Guide), the vertical blue line on the left helps to align the
“First Name” label with the “Customer ID” label above it.
 

Themes provide a quick and built-in mechanism to change the look of layouts, including background color and the fill/borders of fields and their labels. (To add some styling, we applied the Vibrant theme to the sample recipes layout.) With FileMaker Pro 13, it is also possible to create custom themes.

FileMaker Pro offers up many other styling possibilities, such as altering the visual characteristics of objects individually or setting the layout background to a custom image. In all, it was relatively simple to build a recipes layout for a desktop/laptop computer. (More on Web and mobile applications below.)
 

With the layout created, let's consider data navigation and management. Along these lines, FileMaker Pro 13 provides a number of features for finding, sorting and replacing data.

There are two basic ways to find records. One is to perform a Quick Find by using the search box in the upper-right-hand corner of the layout form. Typing one or more words (or a phrase in quotation marks) in the box and pressing Enter/Return will search all fields that have been enabled for that purpose. In the recipes example above, that includes all fields with the exception of the picture. (It’s not possible to find or sort records based on a container field, but an accompanying text field could provide the needed functionality.) The other search option is to enter Find Mode, which resembles a layout with empty fields. Values (as well as operators) can be typed into one or more of those fields, allowing the search to be narrowed or broadened as necessary.

FileMaker Pro’s Find/Replace functionality is similar to what you would find in a word processor. Records can also be sorted by one or more fields, where the sort order for each field can be specified separately as ascending, descending or in a custom order.

Two final features worth mentioning are Charting and Reporting. FileMaker Pro provides the ability to create a spectrum of different charts, including line, pie, column, bar, area and scatter. Reports can be easily created using the New Layout/Report assistant, which guides the user through a number of steps to determine the fields of interest and other details, such as grouping and totals. As an example, the screenshot below shows a report created for the recipes database using the New Layout/Report assistant.
 

FileMaker WebDirect
Web capabilities are a major focus of FileMaker 13, and the core of these capabilities is a technology FileMaker has dubbed WebDirect. The idea is that, after designing a solution in FileMaker Pro 13, the database can be accessed through a Web browser, providing “desktop-style interaction” anywhere an Internet connection is available (assuming the user has the correct privileges).

And although WebDirect uses technologies such as HTML5, CSS, JavaScript and PHP to actually generate and render the content in a browser, publishing a database for use on the web requires absolutely no programming. Once FileMaker Server 13 (including WebDirect) has been installed, it takes only a few clicks of the mouse to transform a layout from its desktop version – as shown above – to this:
 

As you can see, for all intents and purposes, the Web layout is identical to the on-machine version. For both new users and FileMaker veterans, this functionality allows for the creation of Web solutions with knowledge of FileMaker Pro only; the Web translation is automatic.

An additional strength of this approach is real-time synchronization. For example, a change that’s made within FileMaker Pro – either to data or to a layout – is reflected instantaneously for a user viewing the data or layout through a Web browser, without requiring a page refresh. This communication goes in the other direction, as well. For instance, if an image is added to a container field on the browser version of a layout, the image is uploaded to the server through the browser and then is added to the database.

A simple test illustrates the point: In the screenshot below, the window on the right is the Web
version of the recipes layout, and the window on the left is the desktop version (within FileMaker Pro). On the right, changing the preparation time for the recipe from “20 minutes” to “15 minutes” -- changes the database instantaneously. That would be reflected on the left within a second or two. The same test – in the opposite direction – works equally well.
 

This functionality would, for example, allow a business with operations in various geographical regions to access the database simultaneously with nothing more than a Web browser--and without the need to perform any kind of manual or scheduled synchronization of records.

It should be noted that FileMaker requires a paid subscription based on the number of “concurrent connections” to FileMaker Server through a Web browser (or through an iPhone or iPad, as described below). Given that each browser window or tab – whether or not on the same machine – consumes a concurrent connection, it’s possible that a single user can consume more than one.

The FileMaker 13 Purchasing Guide states that the total number of concurrent connections is limited only by the server’s hardware configuration and the complexity of the solution. Concurrent connections are sold in groups of five as:

  • Annual licensing at $5 per connection per month (billed annually)
  • Volume licensing at $180 per connection

Finally, note that WebDirect is only available as part of FileMaker Server 13.

FileMaker Go
FileMaker Go 13 is a free application for iPhones and iPads that is available for download through the App Store. Similar to WebDirect, it allows users to remotely access databases created with FileMaker Pro. Unlike WebDirect, it is possible for up to five iPhone/iPad users to connect to FileMaker Pro without purchasing FileMaker Server and concurrent connections. However, providing access for more than five users follows the same pricing scheme as with browser access.

FileMaker provides built-in options to simplify the task of creating layouts for several touch devices: iPad/iPad mini, iPhone 3.5-inch and iPhone 4-inch. (There’s a custom device option, as well.) FileMaker is device-aware while the layout is being designed and presented. For example, it presents only controls that make sense for touch-style interaction and automatically takes care of the differences among iPad models.

Using the iPhone layout option, we created and styled the following recipes form using the Enlightened Touch theme:
 

Note the use of the tab control, one of several options FileMaker provides to essentially “stack” data in the same visual area. In this example, the Overview tab contains the most important high-level information about the recipe, while the Details tab contains the ingredients and instructions lists.

Another FileMaker feature that assists with the limited visual retail of touch devices is the option for various touch keyboard types, such as URL, Email, Number and Phone keypads. Having the ability to quickly find the correct input buttons can greatly simplify the task of data entry. To illustrate this, the “prep time” and “cook time” fields in the recipes example were converted from text (with values such as “20 minutes” in the previous layouts) to numeric types in the iPhone layout, and then set to use the Number Keypad. The screenshots below show the finished product as it appears on an iPhone; on the top, a view of a record, and on the bottom, some data entry:
 

Finally, a particular advantage of touch devices is, of course, their mobility. For instance, a salesperson in the middle of store could retrieve information about inventory and pricing without leaving the customer; paper forms can be replaced with mobile devices, enabling on-the-spot data entry; and built-in cameras on iOS devices can scan barcodes (functionality that is built-in to FileMaker), adding another level of efficiency to data retrieval.

Other Features and Wish List
Although there is not enough space here to discuss all of FileMaker 13’s features, at least two other items should be noted:

  • The platform contains a robust set of security options and measures that range from accounts and privileges to encryption.
  • The platform offers dozens of additional features for developers, including a full scripting framework for both simple and complex tasks, and FileMaker Pro 13 Advanced – a version of FileMaker Pro that, as its name implies, offers a number of additional development and customization tools for advanced users.

All told, FileMaker 13 contains some great features to simplify and expedite the process of creating customized database solutions. At the same time, it would be great to see:

  • Expanded WebDirect support for browsers beyond Safari, Internet Explorer and Chrome, which are already covered in this release; and
  • A FileMaker Go solution for Android devices, given that the current solution is available only through the App Store for iPhones and iPads.

Conclusion
One of the key selling points for FileMaker 13 is that it lets users design and create a single database back end, with an easily configured and deployed solution wherever you want to consume it. In the process of conducting this review, the advantages of that approach were apparent.

For this review, we created desktop, Web and mobile layouts within FileMaker Pro without any programming whatsoever. A novice without any database experience at all will face a learning curve, but FileMaker’s intuitive interface and extensive documentation will make the climb a lot more manageable.

In all, we recommend FileMaker 13 as a powerful tool for building customizable database solutions without the need for a lot of technical know-how.
For more information, visit FileMaker's website at: http://www.filemaker.com/.
 
 

Stuart Iler Stuart Iler has broad educational and professional experience across a number of disciplines, including information technology, energy, environment, and economics. He currently works as a policy analyst in Washington, DC. Follow me on Google+

Comments