Upgrades are different things to different people, and how you’ll view the FileMaker Pro 5 upgrade, available today, depends on how you use the popular desktop database program. If you use FileMaker as a small stand-alone database, you may be interested in upgrading, and small office users considering FileMaker Pro’s built-in Web publishing features also have reason to investigate the $150 upgrade ($250 for new copies). However, many FileMaker Pro developers and existing Web publishers are dismayed at the new version, which reduces or eliminates capabilities present in previous versions of FileMaker Pro, adds few necessary new features, and fails to offer many features users have been requesting for years.
New Features — Individual users accustomed to Microsoft Office may appreciate FileMaker Pro 5’s reworked interface, which resembles that used by the Microsoft Office applications. Since many people end up using Microsoft Excel for tasks better done in a database because of the ease of viewing data in a spreadsheet, FileMaker Pro 5 adds a new spreadsheet-like view of records with resizable rows and columns. FileMaker, Inc. also enhanced the program’s Web publishing support for those getting their feet wet putting databases on the Web. FileMaker Pro’s enhanced Instant Web Publishing technology now supports Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), adds seven selectable "Web themes" to unify the presentation of databases published via the Web, and offers new security restrictions based on IP addresses. FileMaker Pro 5’s Web Companion can also transfer data using XML (Extensible Markup Language), which could offer a wealth of new possibilities for XML-savvy Web browsers and other tools, although such tools are almost unheard-of outside Web developer circles at the moment.
In a move that presumably indicates the demise of FileMaker’s Web page creation tool Home Page, FileMaker has also announced that Adobe GoLive, Macromedia’s DreamWeaver, and Allaire’s ColdFusion plan to integrate support for Web publishing with FileMaker databases.
FileMaker Pro 5 also enhances FileMaker Pro 4.1’s ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) capabilities. ODBC, which is a database communication standard, enables database programs from different vendors to exchange information. FileMaker Pro 4.1 had ODBC client capabilities, so users could import data from ODBC data sources like Microsoft Access, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft SQL Server, or Oracle. Now, FileMaker Pro 5 can act as an ODBC data source as well, so other programs can access information stored in FileMaker databases, although FileMaker Pro 5.0 does not offer full OBDC Level 2 support, restricting its utility in some environments. FileMaker’s ODBC features, along with the program’s new XML capabilities, also help provide integration with Web page creation tools.
FileMaker developers will appreciate a new database synchronization feature, the long awaited capability to import and export scripts, the capability to resize a few key dialogs like the ScriptMaker (finally!), and conditional value lists that let the developer dynamically customize choices in lists or menus appropriately to the situation.
FileMaker Pro 5 requires a PowerPC-based system with at least 16 MB of RAM running Mac OS 7.6.1 or later.
Looking to the High End — With these ODBC and XML features, it’s clear that FileMaker, Inc. is taking aim at corporate and enterprise database users, and FileMaker, Inc. is changing the product’s pricing model to work more like those used by other large database companies, who charge by user or by feature. Previously, FileMaker Pro has essentially been a standalone database: when you bought the program, you got everything no matter how you intended to use it. However, FileMaker, Inc. has now also announced three higher-end products, FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited, FileMaker Server 5, and FileMaker Developer 5.
FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited, scheduled to ship later this year for $1,000, will allow an unlimited number of guests and Web users to connect to databases and will provide remote database management via the Internet. FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited’s Web services are implemented via a Java servlet that hooks into popular Web servers (including WebSTAR, AppleShare IP, and Apache) plus supports Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) connections and arrays of computers sharing databases via additional copies of the Unlimited edition – this in turn enables FileMaker to offer load balancing, fault tolerance, and concurrent processing of database operations. FileMaker, Inc. claims the Unlimited edition will operate with third-party Web publishing and CGI solutions; the standard edition of FileMaker Pro 5 does not.
The problem is that many of these attractive-sounding features, such as access by an unrestricted number of guests and Web users and compatibility with third party Web publishing solutions already exist in previous versions of FileMaker Pro. Unlike previous versions, FileMaker Pro 5 only supports peer-to-peer networking with up to ten other users, or up to ten IP addresses in a given 12 hour period. In addition, although it’s nice that FileMaker, Inc. added shared database support for arrays of computers, users can already use separate machines and third-party products to add features like load balancing, fault tolerance, and concurrent processing to an existing FileMaker Pro 4.1 setup – we’ve done just that for our full-text searches of TidBITS. These multiple machine setups are necessary for some sites because previous versions of FileMaker Pro lack multithreading, which would allow the program to process multiple actions simultaneously, instead of on a first-come, first-served basis. FileMaker Pro 5 and FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited continue to lack multithreading, although it has been perhaps the single most requested feature from Web publishers using FileMaker for nearly four years.
The end result is that the standard version of FileMaker Pro 5 is useless for anyone relying on Blueworld’s Lasso or other third-party Web publishing solution. Since the FileMaker Pro 4.x built-in Web publishing features are limited in features and scalability, anyone who used FileMaker as part of a serious Web publishing system relied on a third-party product. FileMaker, Inc. is effectively telling those people they must use FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited – which doesn’t offer multithreading, isn’t yet available, and costs $1,000 – simply to retain capabilities they already have. Adding salt to the wound, FileMaker Pro 5 uses a different file format than FileMaker Pro 3.x or 4.x; therefore, Web publishers who persist in using previous versions of FileMaker will not be able to serve databases created with FileMaker Pro 5.
FileMaker, Inc. also plans to offer FileMaker Server 5 for $1,000 by the end of 1999. It will sport improved Open Transport performance under Mac OS 8.6 or later, automated database backups, and support for up to 250 concurrent database users. Although FileMaker Server 5 is a multithreaded application, previous versions of this high-end product have not offered Web publishing capabilities and have not worked with third-party Web publishing tools; nothing in FileMaker Server 5’s product description indicates this situation has changed.
FileMaker Developer 5 will contain tools for distributing royalty-free runtime versions of FileMaker databases, documentation of FileMaker’s XML capabilities, a new JDBC driver for Java-based integration with FileMaker solutions, and documentation of FileMaker’s plug-in architecture. FileMaker Developer 5 includes a copy of FileMaker Pro 5 and should ship in early 2000 for $500.
Windows and a Hard Place — It seems as though FileMaker, Inc. considers the Macintosh market essentially tapped out and is putting more emphasis on the Windows version of FileMaker Pro, with features designed to appeal to large organizations who might purchase volume product licenses. Aside from the Microsoft Office-inspired interface, the new spreadsheet-like data view, ODBC features, and direct import of Excel spreadsheets, FileMaker Pro 5 is taking direct aim at Microsoft’s database product Access by offering tight integration with the Windows versions of Microsoft Office applications and support for application integration via ActiveX.
FileMaker’s long-standing dominance of the Macintosh database market means there are relatively few alternatives for Macintosh users. Users with modest needs can still use the database module of AppleWorks or ProVUE’s Panorama. Those looking for more database power or Web publishing capabilities might try Panorama, ACIUS’s 4D, Paradigma’s Valentina, or even UserLand’s Frontier (see "Frontier Demystified" in TidBITS-476).
In the end, it’s good to see FileMaker, Inc. enhancing its namesake product, although the directions the company has chosen seem to conflict with the ways FileMaker Pro has traditionally been used in the Macintosh market. The standard edition of FileMaker Pro 5 is not all things to all people, and the main question is whether or not users whose needs now fall into the $1,000 price range will find sufficient reason to upgrade.