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FileMaker Pro 2.0: What it’s got and what it’s not

Claris recently upgraded of its best-selling database program, FileMaker Pro 2.0 (not to be confused with FileMaker II, which came after FileMaker 4 but before FileMaker Pro…). If you’re looking for a major, from-the-ground-up rewrite of FileMaker Pro, you’ll have to buy a Windows machine. That’s right, FileMaker Pro now comes in two popular flavors, Mac and Windows. Claris claims both versions are nearly identical in features and operation, and can share files simultaneously on the same network. Since I haven’t used the Windows version yet, I’ll limit my review to the Mac version.

As I alluded to earlier, FileMaker Pro 2.0 for the Mac is not a major rewrite; it’s a major tweak. It looks like the programmers added as many requested features as possible without rebuilding the database engine. These include interface enhancements, QuickTime and sound support, better handling of labels and the ability to open one file from within another, to name a few of the most requested features. This version is "System 7 omniscient," meaning better than "aware," newer than "studly," but not quite completely "savvy." FileMaker Pro strongly supports Apple events, but barely acknowledges Publish & Subscribe (data can be exported in the Edition format). Claris does not promise speed improvements, although it seems to run a little faster, possibly because of a definite quickening of screen redraws.

If it sounds like I’m withholding my enthusiasm, I am. All of these features are nice, but worth the price of a major upgrade (over $100 with tax, shipping and handling)? Maybe when Apple events become more widely used. However, FileMaker Pro offers one new feature I have yet to mention that not only makes the upgrade worth the price but is an absolute must for any serious FileMaker user: ScriptMaker.

ScriptMaker is the new script writing tool for FileMaker. You can still use the "look over my shoulder and remember what I did" method familiar to users of earlier versions of FileMaker, or you can create complex scripts completely from scratch. The new interface is both simple and complete, with a list of script "steps," an area for building scripts, and an Option field for displaying options for each step. For example, if you choose the step "Go to Layout[…]", the Option field will list all the available layouts. Select one from a drop down menu, and FileMaker Pro replaces the three periods between the brackets with the name of the selected layout in your script. The order of the steps in a script can be rearranged by simply dragging a step up or down the script. Claris prides itself on making "simply powerful" software, and if anyone has come up with a better way to create and edit scripts or macros than FileMaker Pro 2.0, I have yet to see it. For the majority of FileMaker users, ScriptMaker alone makes the upgrade price worthwhile.

FileMaker has always been a program that invited users to work around its limitations with calculations, scripts, and – starting in FileMaker Pro – buttons. Along with the more powerful scripting tools, FileMaker Pro 2.0 allows for the ultimate workarounds – using other programs from within FileMaker Pro. Claris cites an example of creating charts for data contained in an FileMaker file by exporting the data to a spreadsheet program, having that program create the chart, save it as a PICT, and import it into a picture field, all done using scripting and Apple events. Although it looks good on paper, how many average FileMaker users will put this feature to use? Developers and consultants whose clients are running 20 MB of RAM, on the other hand, will have a field day.

The award for most ridiculous waste of memory in this category is the "phone dialer" workaround, which suggests that the way to avoid FileMaker’s inability to dial a phone number from within a field is to export the number to HyperCard, which, through the miracle of Apple events, would dial the number for you. Fortunately, several folks are working on little applications whose only purpose in life will be to dial the phone from FileMaker at the cost of only a few K of RAM. Watch your favorite online service for the fruits of their labor.

For database publishers, FileMaker Pro 2.0 adds several new goodies, including new font styles and full text justification. One shortcoming that Claris has taken some heat for in their support area of America Online is the way FileMaker handles text embedded in EPS (Encapsulated PostScript) files. FileMaker downloads fonts to the printer if those fonts are contained in a field or layout, but not if they reside in an EPS graphic. Unless the font is downloaded manually before printing, your graphic that uses Garamond Semibold Italic could come out of the printer in Courier.

(Another AOL FileMaker user pointed out that, although Claris generally does a good job maintaining interface consistency among its programs, the color palettes of the major Claris products have the colors arranged differently. Talk about attention to detail. I want this guy checking the engine mountings of the next 747 I ride.)

FileMaker Pro also supports Data Access Queries on a remote server, a nice feature, but 98% of FileMaker users probably won’t use it. Many other small niceties have been added that will be used by most users, like easier layout manipulation and enhanced cut & paste capabilities. In fact, if I tried to list them all here, this review could turn into a two or three part series like Howard Hansen’s Excel 4.0 review. FileMaker has always been a program of pleasant surprises ("Gee, it would be nice if this program would… hey, it does!"). I’ll let you discover some treasures on your own. If you want clues, Claris has updated and enhanced the manual as well.

Summing up, FileMaker Pro 2.0, although not a major rewrite, is a major and worthwhile tweak. With the addition of a powerful script manager, Apple events, and the ability to export Editions, FileMaker users have a considerably larger bag of tricks to move information into, out of, around and within their databases. With the release of FileMaker Pro for Windows, Claris should own the flat-file database market for the foreseeable future.

Stop the modems! Although the transition from FileMaker Pro 1.0v3 to 2.0v1 has, by most accounts, been a remarkably smooth one, Claris Tech Support reports there will be a maintenance release shortly to address known bugs. They did not elaborate on what those bugs might be. Claris has in the past done quick releases to address relatively minor bugs in new software versions. In those cases, registered users received the update automatically at no charge. Stay tuned.

Claris — 408/727-8227 — 800/544-8554

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