Cooking with FileMaker Pro 3.0
If you’ve read any reviews of the latest release of Claris’s database product FileMaker Pro, you’re probably aware of two things: it’s relational, and it’s Power Mac native. If you currently use FileMaker just to keep Aunt Millie’s cookbook on your four-year-old Mac, you may be asking yourself if there’s any point to the upgrade. With that in mind, here are my experiences creating and converting FileMaker databases, without a relation or Power Mac in sight. I did all the work on a PowerBook 520c, an SE/30, or Quadra 610.
Starts Slow, Runs Fast — I noticed early on that FileMaker Pro 3.0 is noticeably faster doing just about anything – startup, sorting, searches, and screen redraws are all improved. Apparently, previous versions of FileMaker had been written in Pascal, and the new version is a complete rewrite from the ground up. Unfortunately, some operations run quite slowly the first time they’re performed. For example, the first time you launch the program after installation, it takes some time to build a font list and a preferences file. After that, the application launches rapidly, and the splash screen appears only very briefly before you can begin working. Also, since indexing of fields is now optional, you will probably spend some time waiting for a field to index the first time you execute a find or sort on that field.
Speaking of indexing, if you ever use the Paste Special From Index menu item, you will notice you can now select an individual word ("egg", "whites") or the first line of field entries ("egg whites"). This makes the menu item much more friendly without sacrificing its original features.
The More That Things Change… What’s remarkable about this upgrade is, for all the changes, so many things remain the same. The interface is enhanced but not altered to the point of frustration. One notable exception: in Layout mode, double-clicking a field used to bring up the field attributes window, while Option-double-clicking brought up the field selection palette. Now they’re reversed. If I had a nickel for every time an experienced FileMaker user yells "Doh!" (or worse) before they get used to this change, I could stop buying lottery tickets.
Most people will begin working with the upgrade by converting FileMaker Pro 2.x databases. This is simplicity (if not perfection) itself. Drag the file onto the FileMaker 3.0 icon or open the file from within the program, and FileMaker will first back up your original file and then create a converted file in the 3.0 format. Of the many files I have converted, I have had only two minor problems, neither resulting in lost data. The first was a restored find in a script that simply forgot what it was supposed to find. The second was a bit more complicated: a calculation field that stopped calculating after the conversion. The records entered before the conversion contained calculated data, but those entered after refused calculate, returning instead a non-fatal "out of memory" message. Although I could not change the calculation, I could copy it, change the field to a number field, change the field back to a calculated field and paste the original calculation back in. At that point, FileMaker pointed out that I had a syntax error in the calculation, one that version 2.1 did not seem to notice. I changed the syntax, and all was well.
An exciting new feature for those who work with graphics is the ability to either import graphics into container fields or store just a reference to the graphic file. By storing references, I created a graphics catalog with thousands of image files that is a fraction of the size it would have been if I had imported the files. The graphics can be viewed, manipulated, and printed as if they were in the database. These images had previously been managed by a graphics catalog program in a 60 MB file; the new FileMaker Pro 3.0 file is under 16 MB. (Just image how Aunt Millie’s cookbook will look with all of those scanned images of her great dishes!)
Other enhancements too numerous to cover fully here include drag & drop support, phone dialing, speech, AppleScript embedding, and a super-charged ScriptMaker that addresses virtually all the top requests from FileMaker developers. I’ve been working with version 3.0 since late beta (fall of 1995) and am still finding plenty of interesting new features.
A Few Shortcomings — Although I am enthusiastic about FileMaker Pro 3.0, Claris did drop the ball in a few areas. The documentation is best described as a third-party opportunity. Here’s a glaring example: anyone who has developed databases in FileMaker has probably had a love/hate relationship with the "Today" function, a tool which updates a calculation whenever a file is opened on a new date. Unfortunately, this updates all of the records upon launching the file, a process that can guarantee an early lunch hour if you’re working with a large number of records. FileMaker Pro 3.0 has a new function, Status(CurrentDate), which Claris representatives tout as the cure to the Today function blues. But they don’t show how to use it, and neither does the documentation, except as part of a script. So we have a major improvement with no documentation, either in the printed manual or the online help. (By the way, I have your documentation right here: just substitute "Status(CurrentDate)" for "Today" in your calculation. That’s it.) These functions should be cross-referenced in both places.
Fortunately, the CD-ROM version of FileMaker Pro 3.0 comes with many examples and templates which can be used as is or modified to your heart’s content. In addition, Claris does provide some online resources, and you can also take advantage of some outstanding examples uploaded to major online services by FileMaker gurus like Jeff Gagne and Bruce Robertson. I also heartily recommend Matt Petrowsky’s excellent free ISO FileMaker Pro online publication, written in and about FileMaker. [ISO stands for Interactive Support Online; Matt can be reached at <[email protected]>. -Geoff]
The biggest mistake Claris made with this release was not creating a Windows 3.x version. Claris seems to have bought into Microsoft’s hype and believed every Intel machine would be running Windows 95 by the time FileMaker Pro 3.0 came out. As we all know, it didn’t quite happen that way. Rumor has it Claris is working on rectifying this little miscalculation. In the meantime, I have client who can’t upgrade about 40 Macs because they share a FileMaker file over an AppleTalk network with two Windows machines.
In Conclusion — So, should you spring for the upgrade? Unless you share FileMaker files with Windows 3.x users, absolutely. You’ll get speed, flexibility, and a host of new features, all for minimal cost and effort. And should you ever decide to go relational or upgrade to a Power Mac, so much the better. After all, Aunt Millie’s cookbook is worth it!
[Claris has just released a FileMaker Pro 3.0v2 Updater, available for the U.S. version of FileMaker Pro. -Geoff]
Claris Corporation — 800/544-8554 — 408/727-9054 (support)