FileMaker 13 review: Venerable database gets a style and accessibility update
Looks like all those letters I’ve written to Santa over the years finally got his attention, because with the recent release of FileMaker 13, I got almost everything I asked for (after all, I have been a very good boy). Santa threw in a couple of big surprises, as well—it’s a terrific holiday for FileMaker users in particular, and more generally for Mac OS X or iOS users with database needs.
For years, at the top of my own FileMaker wish list has been the ability to use custom styles to control the look of my databases. With FileMaker Pro 13, my wish has been granted.
Like character and paragraph styles in your favorite word processor, object-formatting styles in FileMaker Pro 13 and FileMaker Pro 13 Advanced are double-barreled time-savers. Once styles are defined, it’s far quicker to format objects by applying a style than by applying ad hoc formats for font, font size, field color, field alignment, padding, etc. And once objects are formatted using styles, it’s breathtakingly easy to reformat an entire database simply by redefining a couple of styles. Say my default buttons throughout a database with 187 layouts use Arial 10 labels with a gray background and black borders, and now I want to change that to Helvetica Neue 11 with a light blue background and no borders. In the past, I’d have to reformat every single button on every single layout—work that often took hours. With FileMaker 13, I can just redefine the button style and be done in about 30 seconds. For the first time in my life, I know what Renee Zellweger was thinking when she told Tom Cruise to stop talking in that famous scene in Jerry Maguire—“You had me at ‘custom styles.’” Hang on while I get a tissue.
FileMaker, Inc., did cleverly leave itself room for improvement for future versions. We’re still a ways from the kind of control CSS technology gives Web developers. Styles apply only to objects and control only the look of the objects (background fill, font, font style, font size, etc.) and not the placement or arrangement of objects on a page. But the tools for object placement and alignment have improved in FileMaker 13, and even better, a collection of custom styles can now be saved as a custom theme, and themes can easily be imported from one file into another. With the help of custom themes, it will now be much easier than it was in the past to build databases with a consistent look. Nothing in FileMaker 13 will affect my daily work as a developer as much as this.
Go, go, go!
Back in the early days, we old timers would develop our databases using FileMaker Pro and FileMaker Pro Advanced, then host them under Server, and our users would access the databases on their computers inside their own copies of FileMaker Pro. I’m still doing my development work in FileMaker Pro Advanced, but increasingly my users are accessing my databases through FileMaker Go on their iPhones and iPads. I recently got an email from a lawyer client who wanted to tell me how excited he was about being able to access my database with his iPhone while walking around in the courthouse. I think it’s cool, too.
And with FileMaker 13, support for FileMaker Go deployment—which was pretty good already—is even better, because my databases in Go can now look more like native iOS apps than they could before. FileMaker 13 now supports slide-control objects, various touch-screen taps and gestures, as well as popover objects that display extra info without requiring a new layout.
One welcome improvement is support for multiple data-input keyboards. For example, I can now give users a phone keypad to enter phone numbers (so they don’t have to use the full text-entry keyboard).
Before I leave Go, I have to mention one bell (or is this a whistle?) that I don’t have an immediate use for but think awfully cool anyway: reading barcodes with the iOS device’s camera. You don’t want to know what used to be involved in doing this. With FileMaker 13, I created a barcode data field in a database and read a barcode into that field using my iPhone in under a minute. If anybody from the Guinness World Records organization would like to contact me, I bet I can do it even faster the second time.
And then there’s the revolution
That ought to have been plenty for one upgrade. But FileMaker 13 includes something else, something ground-breaking: WebDirect. WebDirect is a new HTML5-based FileMaker technology that makes it possible for a database built in FileMaker Pro to be accessed through a browser. Except that that doesn’t tell you the half of it.
Users have been accessing FileMaker databases on the Web for a long time. But making that happen usually involves using the FileMaker database as an invisible backend, accessed on a webpage that’s been programmed in PHP—in short, hard work and real coding. Yes, there was an easy way to get your database working in a browser, with an old technology called Instant Web Publishing. But “working in a browser” and “working very well” are two completely different ideas.
That’s why WebDirect is revolutionary—it actually works very, very well. In my testing, a WebDirect-enabled database accessed in Safari or Chrome on my Mac provides about 95 percent of the experience of accessing the same database the “old fashioned way”, that is, using FileMaker Pro as a client. The database I see in Safari looks like the database in FileMaker Pro, and it works like the database in FileMaker Pro. The main disadvantage of WebDirect is that it doesn't handle printing very well, especially if the report you want to print has multiple pages or is based on a complex layout. Another less serious disadvantage of WebDirect is the loss of keyboard shortcuts in databases. As in FileMaker Go, the user interface needs to rely mainly on buttons.
But otherwise, WebDirect is a jaw-dropper.
Now, like FileMaker Go for iOS, WebDirect is a kind of dumb client, meaning you can edit the data but can’t modify the database’s structure or design as you could if you were using FileMaker Pro. But unlike Go, WebDirect isn’t free. WebDirect databases must be hosted by FileMaker Server, and there’s a price per active connection. While the price isn’t as cheap as I’d like, it is cheaper than the cost of FileMaker Pro licenses, and gets cheaper the more connections you buy. Particularly for users who don't need to print complex reports, it looks like WebDirect may be a very cost-effective alternative to FileMaker Pro. It’s also a great way to give occasional users access to a database through their browser, say, as an appointment system for a small dental office.
Here’s a snippet of my to-do database, in FileMaker Pro 13.
And here is the same data, viewed in Safari (thanks to WebDirect).
The only way I’m sure I correctly identified the source for each screenshot is that the WebDirect database displays the special menu bar inside my browser window. Otherwise, the layouts look identical and, even more important, behave identically.
Not to mention...
This is a big release with too many new features and enhancements for me to go into everything. Let me tease you with quick mentions of several other new features: a completely revised admin console for FileMaker Server; conditional visibility for objects on a layout; calculated names for tabs in tab-control objects (and a lot of other things that previously required hard-coded labels); a new field picker that allows you to place fields on a layout more easily than before and with a new option for the field label to sit above the field; and the ability to undo changes to a layout even after saving those changes and viewing them in Browse mode. FileMaker Pro and FileMaker Pro Advanced also come with a library of updated starter solutions that can be used right out of the box.
FileMaker Pro 13 uses the .fmp12 file format introduced two years ago with version 12, so a computer running FileMaker Pro or FileMaker Go 13 can access older databases built in FileMaker Pro 12, and conversely, users with FileMaker Pro or Go 12 can access databases built in FileMaker Pro 13, with the standard caveat that the older versions of Pro and Go won’t know what to do with features that are new in FileMaker 13. WebDirect requires access in Safari or Chrome on a Mac and hosting in FileMaker Server 13.
This is the most significant upgrade for FileMaker since FileMaker Pro 7 was released almost a decade ago. Most of the exciting new features need to be cooked into a database before users can enjoy them, so if you’re a developer, I urge you to upgrade, whether you’re an ace or a struggling do-it-yourselfer. (Call it a Christmas gift to yourself.) IT managers should be curious about WebDirect as an alternative to FileMaker Pro for users who don’t need to make changes to the design or structure of databases, and of course, if you are responsible for software purchases, you will want to upgrade to FileMaker 13 as soon as the databases you use begin to take advantage of the new features. Even for lone users, FileMaker Pro 13 is the best version of the best all-purpose Mac and iOS database tool.