4th Dimension 2003 Standard Edition
At a Glance
Before the Internet, it didn't really matter which proprietary database system you used, as long as you could export a tab-delimited file. Times have changed as databases have become increasingly interconnected, and 4D's 4th Dimension has changed, too. Since its humble beginnings on the Mac in 1987, it has combined the ability to create a graphical user interface, rich data-structuring tools, and its own programming language. The latest version, 4th Dimension (4D) 2003, is totally OS X native, adds a number of solid Web capabilities, and improves on the program's already impressive range of developer features. However, it also retains the idiosyncratic take on rapid application development that we described in our review of the last version, 4D 6.8.1 (; December 2002).
The Web Dimension
Developer tools are all well and good, but the most-interesting new capabilities in 4D 2003 come in the form of its integrated support for Web services, including XML, SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), and WSDL (Web Service Description Language). Acronyms aside, these features essentially allow you to publish to or use information from the Web within your solution. There's a wide range of possible ways to use Web services -- you can enable your database to track your FedEx packages, check Amazon.com prices, or record weather status. And a quick online search for Web service or a visit to www.w3 .org/2002/ws/ reveals a ton of available Web services. By connecting your 4D database to a Web service, you turn the database into a client that interacts with a server on the Internet.
This is where 4D 2003 hits its stride. Its Web Services wizard unlocks the door to some powerful tools, via a series of dialog boxes that guide you through accessing a Web service or setting up your own. One downside is 4D's (quite appropriate) focus on developers and programming tools, which means that the byzantine layers of options and dialog boxes will easily lose some novices. An upside is that real power lies under 4D's hood, but you'll need to become quite familiar with the application before you'll be able to go beyond the common paths to configuring Web services.
"D" Is for Developer
Developers already familiar with 4D will be right at home with 4D 2003, which is a solid step forward with welcome new features in a variety of areas. The new Methods Editor takes its cues from modern Web-authoring tools, with type-ahead functionality, the ability to remove developer comments even if you choose not to compile your solution, multiple undos (thank goodness!), live syntax checking, and my favorite: split windows for looking at different parts of code at once.
Database developers will appreciate 4D, especially when integrating it with other systems (it comes with an ODBC driver and can act as a front end to a SQL server) and using its built-in Web server or 4D's own WebStar, but if you're a small-business owner looking to get your storage room organized, you may end up feeling quite lost.
To help you with some of the challenges of working with 4D 2003, the company has taken pains to ship 4D 2003 with a wealth of handy editors and wizards that step users through creating reports. The program also comes with a ton of electronic (and Web-based) documentation.
The Quick Report editor -- while a bit of a misnomer since it's not so quick and easy to use -- takes some of the mystery out of generating complex reports. Listing invoice totals by date, for example, is pretty easy, but summarizing them by customer or region can be a bit tricky. The editor handles formatting, gives you a wide range of print options, and even generates HTML. Ultimately, using Quick Report seemed counterintuitive when we were trying to work with cross-tab data (in our case, information from related child tables), but it was faster than building reports by hand.
4D 2003 also now includes a built-in compiler (also finally native in OS X), rather than the external application of prior versions. You can run your solution in compiled mode, which produces a smaller, faster application, when you're finished coding, or have it interpreted by the 4D application so you can go back and make necessary changes.
Macworld's Buying Advice
In an overall sense, 4D 2003 is not easy to learn or use, but the company sure is trying, as evidenced by its well-integrated XML and Web-services support. It's well worth purchasing if you're an established 4D developer, but it will likely be over your head if you're not.