4th Dimension (commonly known as 4D) has been available on the Mac since 1987, evolving from a solid, powerful, and well-supported relational-database- management system (RDBMS) into a suite capable of handling nearly any requirement of database publishing or management.
You can almost say that 4D has a split personality. On one hand, it’s an RDBMS, which you can use for basic tasks that require no programming or scripting; on the other, it’s a development environment complete with a sophisticated editor and high-quality compiler, which allows you to generate full-featured applications for Mac OS 9, Mac OS X, or Windows. We found that the latest incarnation, 6.8.1, was quite capable, but it also had some annoying little quirks (such as the not yet OS X-native compiler).
So Many Choices
4D comes in many flavors, including the $349 Standard, $799 Developer, $999 Server Standard, and $1,590 Server Developer editions, and various options are available for each package. (4D offers complimentary licenses to academic and nonprofit organizations.) The Standard edition is very basic and doesn’t include the compiler, which is in the $590 Advanced Kit edition. The Developer edition is the Standard plus the Advanced Kit. Other items in the Advanced Kit are an integrated word processor for use within a database, a vector-graphics editor that can reference database objects, a backup and restore utility, a library of routines that access 4D databases from external programs, and clients for accessing ODBC and Oracle databases from 4D database applications–very handy tools in a corporate environment.
One of the most profound axioms of software development is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Following this lead, 4D developed a simple and straightforward database-creation process in the product’s infancy and, aside from minor visual tweaks made to match changes in the Mac user interface, has left it almost unchanged.
When you launch 4D, you’re given the choice of creating a new database or opening an existing one. When you click on Create A Blank Database, the program presents a standard Save dialog box where you name your database’s schema, or Structure. You can start defining fields right away by double-clicking on the Table 1 item in the Structure window. To create relationships for relational databases, just click on the field in one table and drag it to its corresponding field in the other table. 4D draws an arrow from one to the other and presents the Relation Properties dialog box so you can define which actions are automatic.
Creating forms is just as easy. 4D will ask whether you want to create default input and output forms. Answer yes, and you get a basic input form and a columnar output form. All you have to do is supply your data.
If the basic forms don’t satisfy your aesthetic sense (and they shouldn’t), you can design your own with the help of 4D’s Form Wizard. Its rich design toolbox, full of icons for the various objects you can place on your form, makes creating attractive and functional forms a piece of cake.
Industrial-strength databases are large, complex entities that contain multiple tables, forms, reports, methods, and so forth. 4D’s Explorer (see “Explore Away”) provides a handy control center from which you can quickly access any part of your database.
Since Last We Met
Since we last reviewed 4D (Reviews, June 2000), it’s grown up quite a bit, implementing support for Windows XP and OS X, platform-specific style sheets in the Design environment, form inheritance, and cross-platform compatibility–without requiring a transport tool, as was necessary with previous versions.
The style sheets are some of our favorite features. When using 4D’s Form Wizard to create a form, you can create templates for each platform (OS 9 and X and Windows 98, 2000, and XP) and then select the template you want your subsequent forms to inherit.
However, 4D’s OS X-native promise is, at least so far, only partially fulfilled. The 4D environment is OS X native, as are the applications you develop in 4D, and that’s good news. The bad news is that the compiler (a separate tool for generating database applications) is not yet OS X native, so you can use it only in Classic. Having to boot into OS 9 or start up Classic to run the compiler is very annoying, as well as aesthetically displeasing. To its credit, though, 4D has plans to integrate the compiler with the environment, making it native, in a version that should be announced by the time you read this.
Documentation and Support
4D is not at all difficult to use once you learn the basics, which are very straightforward and documented in a QuickStart and a JumpStart document on the product CD. The QuickStart document, which contains tutorials for new database users, is more current, covering 4D 6.8 (a paper copy is included in the box); JumpStart, for more experienced users new to 4D, covers version 6.7. Having out-of-date introductory documentation seriously impedes the new user, whereas an experienced user can better deal with the upgrade addenda, which are available from the company’s Web site.
4D’s free online support is excellent, and at $329 per year, it has a superb Partners program for professional database developers with more-complex needs. 4D also includes QuickTime instructional movies for many different actions.
This brings us to another of 4D’s major support strengths–its offerings for developers and their user-group equivalent, 4D Community. 4D has a very active and extensive online support organization (both paid and volunteer) that provides free online training courses, streaming QuickTime tutorials, technical tips, extensive examples, collections of tech notes, and other online references. Unfortunately, this is a hidden gold mine, as the provided PDF files don’t mention the Web site as a resource.
On the Downside
We have a few more minor nits to pick. When 4D creates a new database, it defaults to the root directory of your boot disk in OS X, rather than your Home folder or (preferably) your Documents folder. In a multiuser environment, documents should be created in the logged-in user’s hierarchy. While most developers aren’t likely to be sharing their machines, some are, and it’s better to follow standard practice.
As we mentioned earlier, creating a new database opens a full-screen window called Table 1, concealing your List Of Tables window. If you don’t know that the List Of Tables window exists or if you don’t resize the Table 1 window, you might never realize it’s there. Also, the application lacks a Windows menu (but you can thank Apple for the 4D contextual menu in the Dock).
In addition, some OS-standard behaviors are unavailable; for example, dragging a background window while pressing the 1 key doesn’t leave the window in the background as it should.
Finally, the icons on toolbar buttons and dialog-box tabs don’t clearly indicate their function. Fortunately, 4D makes use of tool tips, which appear when the cursor hovers over an icon.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
4D 6.8.1 is a fascinating amalgam of power, versatility, and ease of use, despite its irritating surface blemishes, such as scattered and out-of-date (but comprehensive) documentation.
If you want to create simple databases that will allow you to track your videotape collection, home inventory, or the like, 4D is massive overkill, and it won’t be as easy to use as more-basic alternatives such as FileMaker Pro. However, if you’re willing to do a little programming, if you want to create professional-quality database applications to help manage an organization or a project, and if you need to run them on multiple Windows and Mac platforms, 4D should be just the ticket. Version 6.8.1 suffered in an OS X environment, requiring frequent trips into the Classic mode for compilation, but that problem should be remedied by the time you read this.