FILEMAKER PRO 6
At a Glance
If you're a Mac user, chances are you're well acquainted with FileMaker Pro. It has been part of the Mac's history since 1985, and version 6 retains the program's legendary ease of use. Users will appreciate what may likely prove to be this release's best feature: extending and constraining found sets. FileMaker Pro 6 also offers XML import and export capabilities; however, this version may leave you wanting more when it comes to security enhancements, multithreading, and innovation.
One of FileMaker's strengths is its ability to perform complex searches. In the past, though, it always replaced one found set with the results from the next. It's now possible in Find mode to refine a set of records further by performing subsequent requests with the Constrain Found Set option, which lets you apply a second search to only those records within the current group. Likewise, Extend Found Set allows you to add records to the overall group. These functions are fully scriptable and should help you better manage data sets.
Another small but welcome change is that you no longer have to go through the Sort dialog box or create a script for basic sorting requests. Instead, you can pull up a contextual menu with a single click of the mouse and perform simple sorts on any field of a given layout.
When you need to make global changes, a new Find/Replace feature lets you search across fields and records and change data within them. You could, for example, universally change a misspelling of San Francisco wherever it occurred in your database. Developers will value this handy way to avoid writing some parsing functions, but be warned: the fields you wish to modify must be on the current layout for this function to be effective, and it applies only to a current found set.
Diving into Development
For developers, the big news is Custom Dialog boxes. While not as flexible as the popular Troi Dialog plug-in, they do let you use calculation fields to display specific dialog messages to specific users -- for example, "Chris, 'someday' isn't a valid deadline."
Developers can also ensure that end users fulfill data requests by allowing them to modify as many as three fields from within these boxes. This lets developers do things such as highlight data problems in a dialog box, where a user won't be able to miss them, or to have the user enter an internal password for special access to certain layouts or scripts.
These Custom Dialogs are great, but the lack of menus, check boxes, or other niceties limits the options you can exploit to get the information you need.
Getting FileMaker to Talk
FileMaker has rightly boasted of version 6's XML integration as a key feature, and the world of serious data management dictates that all modern applications must work with XML. FileMaker Pro 6's XML features finally offer developers an alternative to the trials of dealing with ODBC drivers, kludged systems built with merge files, exports, AppleScript, and so forth.
But XML isn't for the faint of heart, and good luck finding any mention of it in FileMaker's manual. To the company's credit, it offers decent XML resources at www.filemaker.com/xml/.
Overall, FileMaker Pro 6 has some welcome additions; where it falls down is in its omissions. Security is increasingly important to database developers these days, and it's a shame that FileMaker's obscure security dialog boxes haven't changed much since version 3. It's impossible to apply security settings globally across a united group of files, you can't easily maintain more than a handful of login and password combinations, and the group screen's user interface is still incomprehensible and counterintuitive.
It would be nice if FileMaker had some common programming elements as well, mainly for power users. For example, many developers would love to be able to copy and paste a selection of script steps from place to place (rather than using only the limited import function), or better yet, to have the option of working in a text editor. FileMaker is still missing any sort of arrays -- which would finally make it possible to control, say, repeating fields -- and there's no way to build functions within elaborate calculations or scripts.
Finally, the FileMaker client is still single-threaded, so it can perform only one task at a time -- an issue for Web-hosted databases and other systems that use the Web Companion plug-in. Moreover, you can have only 50 files open at once, and FileMaker's client-server model still depends on high traffic, making it difficult to deploy across the Internet or a WAN.
Macworld's Buying Advice
All told, FileMaker Pro 6 is a strong upgrade -- the addition of XML is a must if you need to have FileMaker interact with another system. While we may wonder whether version 6 can justifiably be called a major release, the new features it contains are quite helpful, and FileMaker remains the easiest database to use or develop for on any platform.
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