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Talk database applications for the Mac, and the discussion usually begins and ends with FileMaker. The longtime Mac developer, now a subsidiary of Apple, enjoys a virtual monopoly over the database software market.

But FileMaker Pro 5.5, released on Monday, is not only Carbonized to take full advantage of OS X but also souped up with quite a few new features.

FileMaker Pro users can upgrade to version 5.5 for $149. New customers can pick up the software for $249. And while the update for OS X is certainly the most eye-catching addition to FileMaker Pro 5.5, Mac users who haven't switched from Mac OS 9 can use the updated database application, as well -- the software runs on Mac OS 8.1 and later.

Aqueous Data

Running natively in OS X, FileMaker Pro 5.5 uses the Aqua interface. Buttons pulsate and dialog boxes fly out of menus like magic carpets. But the OS X-related changes go deeper than that.

FileMaker Pro 5 was QuickTime-compatible, but the OS X-native FileMaker uses the rebuilt operating system's QuickTime Import Engine. This allows you to import PDF documents -- containing graphics or text -- as QuickTime movies. You'll be able to append these movies to existing records, and play through them using Forward and Back controls.

Major-League Compatibility

The 5.5 update adds new features to FileMaker Pro that any Mac users can take advantage of, regardless of the version of Mac OS they use. Before, it was possible for FileMaker Pro users to view data from other ODBC-compliant databases, such as Microsoft Access and Oracle. Version 5.5 allows you to modify data in such databases, as well as search through them using structured query language, or SQL.

ODBC, or open database connectivity, is a Microsoft standard for sharing information and query syntax among different databases. Full compatibility with this standard promises to put FileMaker in league with the most popular database applications on any platform.

Whistles and Bells

Big-league features aside, the new version sports a few additions that even regular folks will appreciate. The program now lets you save any form as a Web page, complete with your form's formatting, formulas, pop-up menus, and field labels. The Web interface even converts any of your labels into button rollovers.

FileMaker Pro 5.5 also promises to provide much tighter integration with Microsoft Excel. It can import Excel data in name ranges, regardless of where the data appears in the spreadsheet.

Additionally, the latest version offers stronger, more-flexible security. You can restrict access to individual records -- they'll appear grayed out to users without browsing privileges. Also, the network administrator can disable the command to create a new database.

The Road Ahead

FileMaker Pro 5.5 is limited to 10 networked users, or 10 distinct IP addresses over the Web during a 12-hour period. The eleventh visitor will get a message to the effect that the database is not available.

If your Web database is expecting a lot more company than FileMaker Pro 5.5 allows, you'll want to look into the $999 FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited. The $999 FileMaker Server 5 allows up to 250 networked users to access the database over a network, and the $499 FileMaker Developer 5 allows you to author and distribute self-running database applications.

Updates to FileMaker Server and Unlimited are planned for this summer. FileMaker expects to release an update to Developer in the fall. Each product is compatible with FileMaker Pro 5.5 and can take full advantage of the new software's additional features.

Magic Makeover: FileMaker Pro 5.5 is spruced up for OS X and can now import PDFs as QuickTime movies.
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