Just last year, enthusiastic software reviewers throughout the computer industry greeted the release of FileMaker Pro 7 ( October 2004 ) as the most significant upgrade in the product’s history. With the release of FileMaker Pro 8 ( see our first look ), the company has done something surprising: Rather than resting on its laurels, FileMaker has released another significant upgrade about a year sooner than many industry observers expected. In retrospect, it looks as if FileMaker 7 was really the precursor to FileMaker 8.;
Developer edition renamed
Starting with the release of version 4 in 1997, FileMaker has come in two flavors: a standard version, called FileMaker Pro, for end-users and users with limited development needs, and a separate version, called FileMaker Developer, which had all the features in the standard version plus some features specifically for expert developers. With the release of version 8, FileMaker Developer has been renamed FileMaker Pro Advanced, though the term “FileMaker” is commonly used to refer to features both products share.
The Advanced version accounts for the biggest changes in the new release. Don’t let the word “advanced” scare you off. This is now the version I recommend for anyone designing FileMaker databases.
FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced lets you copy and paste fields, relationships, script steps and whole scripts—even entire tables—not just within the same file, but from one file to another. This is especially significant because when converting your old FileMaker 6 databases, you can now take greater advantage of the new relational features in FileMaker by bringing all your tables into a single file, and you no longer need a third-party utility to do it.
FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced also gives expert developers nearly complete control over what menus are displayed for which users and when, what commands are in those menus, and what actions (or scripts) those commands trigger. In most of my FileMaker Pro 8 databases, for example, I’ll get rid of the Delete All Records command and substitute my own New Record script action for the default New Record action.
A number of developer-oriented features are available both in FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced and in the standard version of FileMaker Pro 8. Developers can now define variables right in the scripts that use them. In the past, it was necessary to use predefined global fields to hold temporary values. I love variables, and my only complaint is that they can’t be used in every instance, for example, to provide the text for buttons in custom dialogs.
The wonderful Tab-control feature lets you assign the same space on a single layout to different groups of fields. When users click on a tab, the fields assigned to it become visible and the others are hidden, as if they were in different layers. This used to require careful creation of multiple layouts. You can now enhance a database’s user interface in minutes, where it used to take hours.
Power to the (non-technical) people
But it’s not all about developers. The standard edition of FileMaker Pro 8 includes a number of out-of-the-box improvements for end-users, too—that is, people who use databases as opposed to designing them. The File menu contains a pair of new commands that make it a snap for users to save reports as PDF files or export record sets directly to Excel files, and at the same time, e-mail these files instantly to colleagues or clients. FileMaker offers improved live spell-checking (it uses a squiggly underline to highlight suspect words, instead of just beeping at you as you type) and—finally—auto-completion of values entered in fields.
The new Find Matching Records command lets users find all the records that have exactly the same data in the same field, without having to enter Find mode, type, and execute the command. You can now enter dates by clicking on a day in the calendar instead of typing numbers, slashes, and four-digit years. And there are a number of nice shortcuts that make finding dates and date ranges easier; for example, you can now find all the records with dates in April 2005 by searching for “4/2005” rather than “4/1/2005..4/30/2005”.
FileMaker 8’s companion server products (Server 8 and Server 8 Advanced) won’t be out until later this fall. FileMaker Server 7 can host database files created in version 8 and users can access them with either FileMaker 7 or 8. Some of the more esoteric new features in version 8, especially those that involve server-side calculations, won’t work when Server 7 is hosting the database, but most of the exciting new version 8 features—including variables and tab-controls—will work fine for FileMaker 8 users.
Macworld’s buying advice
Anybody doing development work in FileMaker Pro 7 Developer, and anybody who skipped version 7, should upgrade to FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced as soon as possible. The usability enhancements in FileMaker Pro 8 are compelling enough to pique the interest of end-users, but the indirect benefits of FileMaker 8 may be even greater. Developers working in FileMaker Pro 8 Advanced can now write smarter scripts, build better user interfaces, and deliver databases more quickly than they could before. And that’s good for end-users, too.
[ William Porter is an independent database applications developer and writer who lives in Dallas. He is writing a book about FileMaker Pro. ]The Tab-control tool lets you layer fields on top of one another on the same layout, and you don’t have to be a FileMaker guru to use it. Nobody likes typing dates, so the new date picker gives you a simple calendar to use instead.