FileMaker Mobile 8 and the Future of PDAs
Palm recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of the original PalmPilot PDA. I was among the enthusiastic early adopters. I was thrilled that, unlike the large paper organizer it replaced, it featured fast searching and synchronization with my computer. But I didn’t use my PDA only for storing contact, schedule, and note information. I answered email while sitting in boring meetings; I hooked up a wireless modem and bought movie tickets over the Web; I used an encrypted note program to store my passwords and personal info. In short, I did my best to use my PDA in lieu of a laptop, even though it had a tiny, non-backlit, monochrome screen and no keyboard. Its compactness masked many evils.
Over the years, though, I (like most other Palm users I know) gradually found my cell phone taking over PDA functions, while feeling increasingly constrained by my handheld’s limitations for tasks that I’d normally perform on a full-blown computer. So I used the Palm less and less – even the newer version I now own that features a color screen, more memory, and better handwriting recognition. It’s still better than my phone for playing solitaire and writing notes, but only barely. And I began wondering whether there’s any good reason left to pack a stand-alone PDA. Although I don’t personally fit the profile for users who would benefit from a smart phone based on the Palm or Windows Mobile operating systems, I understand their utility for some people: if you’re going to carry a cell phone anyway, you might as well carry one that gives you more computing capabilities and get some work done on the train. But what of the conventional Palm PDAs, the ones that aren’t also phones? Could there be any reason left to use them?
It was with that question on my mind that I took a look at FileMaker Mobile 8, a product designed to enable you to view and edit the contents of FileMaker Pro databases on your Palm or Windows Mobile PDA and sync the data with your computer. I could imagine any number of situations in which it would be helpful to have an editable database in my pocket, and that just might give me a good reason to keep the Palm in active use. I assumed, somewhat naively, that the Palm version of the program would approximate the functionality of its desktop sibling, in much the same way that Documents To Go gives you reasonably full-featured editors for Word and Excel documents.
I’ll cut to the chase: FileMaker Mobile 8 was a great disappointment. Even though it’s the fourth major release of a program introduced in 2000, its biggest selling point seems to be that it has fewer limitations than earlier versions.
To be fair, FileMaker Mobile 8 does what it claims to do. The data travels between computer and PDA correctly. I experienced no crashes or other serious bugs. The problem is simply that it does far too little.
For example: with FileMaker Mobile, your PDA can’t display calculation, summary, or timestamp fields, container fields (such as photographs), radio buttons, checkbox fields with more than one value, multiple tables (or relationships that depend on them), custom form elements, or graphics of any kind. There is no support for scripts, buttons, or validation when entering data, and in fact if your desktop database has a field with strict validation settings, an incorrect value entered on your PDA can cause an entire sync to fail. (In other words, FileMaker Pro respects your validation settings, but FileMaker Mobile doesn’t.)
I could list numerous other limitations, but my point is that what you get on your Palm is the merest shadow of what’s on your computer. If you happen to have simple, flat, text-only databases with little or no need for validation, calculations, scripts, and the like, you might find FileMaker Mobile perfectly serviceable. For example, it could easily hold recipes and give you a handy (and editable) reference in the kitchen. It could track inventory for someone like a plumber or electrician working offsite every day. It could make a handy bibliographic storage tool for students or researchers. But I expect far more for $70, and far more from FileMaker, Inc.
FileMaker’s marketing materials trumpet the new capabilities of FileMaker Mobile 8, such as syncing with databases hosted on a server, and I won’t deny that that increases its usefulness from previous versions. You can also run scripts before or after a sync, potentially working around some data-entry issues. But again, these changes amount to fewer limitations rather than more features.
Initially, I wanted to give FileMaker Mobile the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, I thought, the kinds of things I wanted to do were simply beyond the meager processing power of a PDA. That turned out to be untrue. A Palm application called HanDBase offers relational databases, form design (right on your PDA), calculations, cascading pop-up lists, support for (grayscale) graphics, and most of the other features FileMaker Mobile is missing. Unfortunately, development on the Mac OS X version of the HanDBase Desktop application has ceased, and their conduit for syncing with FileMaker Pro is woefully out of date, requiring Classic (and older versions of both Palm Desktop and FileMaker Pro). Another Palm database, JFile, also has greater capabilities on the PDA itself than does FileMaker Mobile, but again, its conduit to sync with FileMaker Pro is obsolete, requiring FileMaker Pro 6 or earlier. In other words, for syncing a Palm database with a modern version of FileMaker Pro under a modern version of Mac OS X, FileMaker Mobile is, sadly, the only game in town.
For years, FileMaker, Inc. has emphasized that the real power of FileMaker Pro lies in its extensive customizability, its relational capabilities, its scripting, and other fancy features. That’s true: FileMaker Pro is a fantastic application, and I can’t say enough good things about version 8. But if you’ve taken advantage of all these great features and built yourself some truly complex databases, you may be out of luck when it comes to mobile syncing. This is the crux of my complaint: what FileMaker Mobile is good for is something entirely different from what FileMaker Pro is good for. If you rely on all the bells and whistles of FileMaker Pro, as you have every reason to do, you take yourself out of the target audience for FileMaker Mobile.
This brings me back to the question I raised earlier: could ubiquitous access to my FileMaker Pro databases be the killer app that keeps me packing a stand-alone PDA? Or, could it be the enticement for buying a Palm- or Windows-based smart phone when I need to replace my current cell phone? My answers to both are clearly no. Were I a Windows user, I’d have more options – and yes, I know, I can run Windows on my Mac, but the fact that I wrote the entire "Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac" ebook still doesn’t mean I wish to make a habit of using Windows. Even then, I wouldn’t have what I thought I really wanted, essentially a pocket equivalent of FileMaker Pro that integrates seamlessly with the desktop version.
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In the end, I’m forced to wonder if perhaps FileMaker’s inability to produce a sufficiently capable version of FileMaker Mobile isn’t a reflection on the market’s enthusiasm for conventional PDAs in general. The Blackberry, Treo, and other devices designed primarily as communication tools are gaining momentum in the market, while sales of PDAs that can’t communicate in real time are languishing.
Palm took the world by storm with the PalmPilot 10 years ago, but even at geekfests like Macworld Expo, I rarely see anyone using a Palm handheld, and those I do see in use are integrated with cell phones. The convergence of cell phone and PDA wasn’t really a merger of equals, and mobile communication devices have subsumed the PDA concept almost entirely, providing just the basics of calendar and contact management, which would seem to be all that most people really want from their PDAs.