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FileMaker fulfils role

FileMaker fulfils role

Do you want to work with your data without having to become a database expert in the process? If so, FileMaker Pro 5.0 might be worth considering.

FileMaker Pro's interface - coming to Windows via the Macintosh environment - breaks out of the user interface paradigm of its closest competitors - Access, Alpha Five, and Paradox - in an attempt to provide users with a more convenient way to interact with their data. In fact, FileMaker hopes this new interface will convince you to adopt FileMaker Pro as your database of choice for Microsoft Office 2000.

FileMaker Pro can support 25 users in a peer-to-peer environment and up to 10 Web users, accessing data through their browsers. During my testing, FileMaker Pro performed all the more common database operations - such as importing, searching, updating, - quickly and efficiently. Although it performed slightly slower than Microsoft's Access 2000, it was on par with the performance of rival Paradox from Corel and much faster than Alpha Software's Alpha Five.

My installation went smoothly. The install routine prompted me to select a network protocol, which you must do if you want to share FileMaker Pro files over a network, either as a guest or host; a no networking option is available for desktop installations.

FileMaker Pro 5.0's user interface, ostensibly redesigned to be familiar to Microsoft Office users, touts menus that more closely follow the Office standard and two new ways to access popular menu commands: via a toolbar button or a pop-up context menu. Microsoft-like toolbars provide quick access to many FileMaker Pro menu commands. As in other Office applications, you can show or hide any of your toolbars by selecting Toolbars from the View menu.

FileMaker claims that modeling its interface after Microsoft Office applications will enable new users, already familiar with Microsoft Office products, to quickly locate many common menu choices, but I found this to be only partly true. Many of the older FileMaker Pro interface conventions are still evident, and while FileMaker's visage is simple enough to navigate, it isn't enough like Microsoft products to fully achieve its Office 2000 goal. While the menus and toolbars have that well-known look, they offer fewer direct connections to the features that more experienced users are likely to use (for example, reports or queries).

All layouts such as forms, labels, reports, browse screens, are accessed by clicking on a table's currently displayed layout, choosing layout mode, then going up to the menu to start the layout wizard. While this isn't necessarily more difficult, it is not as Office-like as a declared contender should be.

FileMaker has also made a few poor decisions in its attempt to keep things simple, one of the worst violations being its offering of only six fonts rather than the ubiquitous list of loaded Windows fonts. To use additional fonts, you have to use a utility to "configure" them for use in FileMaker. This is an extreme example, but illustrates how FileMaker is more of a "dumbed-down" product than it is a simplified product.

A new series of resizable dialog boxes and multiple item list selections such as Define Fields, Script Definition, Define Relationships, and Define Value Lists dialog boxes, make performing complicated tasks a snap. You can select and modify multiple items at one time and, additionally, you can sort the contents of some lists with a single click of a column heading.

For purposes of simplicity, FileMaker Pro does not contain a built-in programming language, but it does sport ScriptMaker, an efficient and easy-to-use tool that enabled me to quickly define scripts by choosing the appropriate steps from a dialog box and then arranging them in a user-specified processing order. Scripts can be built from single operations, a group of operations, subscripts, or all of the above.

Also easy to use is FileMaker Pro 5.0's Layout/Report Assistant, which guides you through layout creation according to options you choose. You can create layouts that are appropriate for viewing your data onscreen, or layouts for printing reports, labels, and envelopes. However, I was disappointed that no USPS Barcode support is included. Once created, you can easily modify a layout by switching to layout mode.

Using the Layout/Report Assistant, I was able to choose a layout theme from a wide array of styles meant to enhance the appearance of my layouts and reports, as well as give them all a consistent look. Each layout offers variations designed specifically for either onscreen use or print.

FileMaker Pro can share data via ODBC with its Data Access Companions. Data Access Companions respond to SQL queries sent from other ODBC-compliant applications, and interface between the FileMaker ODBC driver and your FileMaker Pro database. Use the Local Data Access Companion to receive queries from your ODBC-compliant application on the same computer, and the Remote Data Access Companion to receive requests from ODBC-compliant applications over a TCP/IP network. Unlike other ODBC data sources, however, FileMaker's drivers inelegantly require that FileMaker be running with the target table open for a connection to be made.

I found it extremely easy to publish my database as a Web page using a sleek wizard that allowed me to view, edit, and query data directly through my brow-ser. You don't even need to have FileMaker Pro installed to access data via the browser, a feat that Access can't manage. You can then specify particular IP addresses that can request data from the FileMaker's Web companion so that, for example, only IP addresses that start with 1.2.3.* can access your databases.

FileMaker Pro's feature list, friendly face, excellent wizards, and terrific Web publishing capabilities make it a viable desktop and small network solution. However, its unorthodox, over-simplified interface, lack of a built-in programming language, inability to directly connect to larger back-end databases, and only partial Microsoft Office 2000 integration make it unsuitable for the enterprise market.

The bottom line ***

FileMaker Pro, Version 5.0

Summary: FileMaker Pro 5.0 is a good entry-level database manager for small businesses, workgroups, or projects.

Business Case: This end-user relational database can save headaches and increase productivity in environments where there is a strong contingent of Mac users, beginners, or Windows/PC-phobes.

Pros:

Simple interface with excellent wizard supportPredefined templatesFast processing speedGood import capabilitiesCons:

Too "dumbed down" in places

No built-in language

No direct connections to back-end databasesCost: $US249; competitive upgrade $149 from Web site.

Platforms: Mac OS, Windows 95/98, Windows NTShip date: Sept. 27FileMakerhttp://www.filemaker.com


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