FileMaker Pro 2.1. (Windows database manager) (Productivity Choice) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Tom Campbell
FileMaker Pro 2.1 from Claris is that rarest of creatures in the database world: a program that gives you substantial power and a blessedly short learning curve. Indeed, this is probably the best Windows database product a nonprogrammer can buy. And it's equally ideal for programmers weary of learning new languages every time they want to accomplish a task of low-to-medium complexity.
Like many database managers, FileMaker is feature-laden, but like no others, it has a design that makes those features so easy to use that it's hard to imagine they could be implemented any other way. This isn't surprising given FileMaker's lineage: Claris is an Apple-owned software company that develops uniformly excellent products with the kind of interface that made the Mac so popular. Its brilliant Windows products retain both compatibility with the Mac versions and the fit and finish that brought the Mac software such renown.
Creating a database with FileMaker is easy. You don't have to worry about creating indexes or setting maximum lengths for text fields--you don't even have to worry about numeric format. Yet if you're interested in constraining data to values in a list, pulling it out of another database, or calculating numeric, text, or date values, FileMaker lets you do so without a lick of programming.
Creating a data entry form is a snap, and it makes fantastic use of what appears to be a minimal tool set. You can create as many forms as you need, and you can attach actions to graphic objects on the forms.
FileMaker does so many things right that it's caused me to rethink the standards I use to measure the usefulness of other software. Most database managers have form designers you use to create the data entry screens and separate query modules for constructing the filters you need to locate data in a meaningful fashion. With FileMaker, you won't even find the word query in the index. To find a record, you simply click on the mode selector at the bottom of the screen and choose Find; a duplicate of your data entry form comes up. You enter the values and click on the Find button, and a subset of records matching your criteria pops up. This is one of those obvious features that other products are now only beginning to offer.
The powerful text-editing abilities set more new standards. FileMaker is the only database manager I know of that lets you use more than one kind of typeface or text style in a field. In most other database managers, you have rudimentary text editors using Windows' built-in capabilities--but they impose single font/style restrictions. This limitation has broad implications: You can't underline or italicize words in a cover letter, much less employ different typefaces. FileMaker lifts all those restrictions and surpasses expectations. Not only do you get unlimited fonts and text styles in a single field, but you also get strikeout, double underlining, small caps, upper-and lowercase, and even title case, in which the first letter of each word is automatically capitalized. The font menu shows the typeface names in their actual typefaces.
You also get the benefit of a spelling checker, one that's integrated logically into the day-to-day operations of the database. It can check selected text, a single word, the current record, all the records found in a query, or the entire database. It can, if you want, check as you type, beeping or flashing the menu bar when you err. The dialog box avoids the word you're checking, positioning itself in a screen section away from where you're typing.
In any database manager there's a wall in application development, a point at which your needs can be met only with a programming language. Most of the time, you'll do just fine without programming, but as your needs grow, so does the likelihood that the database manager won't do something you need it to do. If the database manager doesn't have a programming language, you're hosed. If the language is too complicated and you're not a programmer, you're greatly inconvenienced (at least), having to rely on a friend's help or hire a consultant. Claris has redefined the problem neatly with its automated ScriptMaker.
Using ScriptMaker, you construct a command sequence by choosing commands from a list box and attaching them to a button or a menu. When you add a command to your script, its options appear in the ScriptMaker dialog box, and you check them off or enter parameters from a supplied list. As a programmer I'm naturally somewhat skeptical of this approach, but ScriptMaker does a fine job of meeting most of my programming needs.
Interestingly, there are tasks the ScriptMaker programming facility makes harder than they have to be. For example, there's no convenient way to put up a dialog box with a user-defined message and caption with a single OK button, or to put up such a dialog with a line for data entry. In C, Visual Basic, or C++, this is literally a one-line program statement. In FileMaker, you must simulate it using the program's form designer to create a form, add a graphic box and text over the box to create a button, use a ScriptMaker command to display the form and put up the message, and then use another ScriptMaker command to hide the form. It would be nice if my dialog for entering a log-in name could be a builtin script element.
Creating a command button is also harder than it has to be. You have to draw it yourself using the square, circle, or rounded square tools; put a picture on the button if you like; and then add the text to the button. While this can be great in that you can create an infinite variety of cool-looking buttons, you aren't given access to the standard Windows command button that virtually any programming environment treats as a given.
But overall, FileMaker's astounding use of the Windows user interface to keep you away from programming goes a great deal further than I had expected it would. The Entry Options dialog, which allows you to set conditions and perform operations on data entered into a field, allows you to do things with a few mouse clicks that I would have sworn required programming. That ability, I think, is at the heart of FileMaker's genius: Not only is the programming facility about as far from programming as it could be, but you seldom need to dip into it at all.
The FileMaker documentation is well written and gorgeously produced. One unique feature is a small manual detailing the sample applications, called templates. Most other programs' sample apps fall pitifully short of meeting real-world needs, but FileMaker's are terrific. The Contact Manager template, for example, gives you a call log, an automatic fax creation for the selected customer, a label maker, envelope printing and Avery label support, and a cover letter. The Products template contains a catalog of products replete with images, a vendor listing, and an order form. And the Expense Accounting template generates a tax form, has a spread-sheetlike data entry form, and gives you a monthly deposit summary. Network support is extensive, complete, and so well implemented that you won't even know it's there.
FileMaker is easy to use, grows with your needs, comes with a great selection of sample files, and comports itself well in a multiuser environment. If you want Mac compatibility, look no further--the Mac and PC versions are virtually identical and even support the same picture formates. FileMaker is not the least expensive database manager, but it's worth every cent.