updated 06:42 am EST, Mon March 3, 2014
New version enhances business use at cost of some personality
FileMaker Pro 13 is the first new version of the venerable database software since the company opted to kill of its consumer-friendly Bento software, and brings some of that influence into the fold -- such as new themes, easier import and a more-streamlined web-publishing feature to compliment FileMaker 12's mobile savvy. Is it worth the upgrade? Are databases still useful outside business or enterprise? Read on to find out.
We should start off with a bit of a disclaimer: we loved Bento and were disappointed when FileMaker opted to shut it down. This does color our view of FileMaker Pro 13 a bit, since it is the only real alternative that former Bento users can jump to. That said, time has given us a better understanding of the rationale behind Bento's demise, and FileMaker Pro is not and never has been intended to be merely a more advanced version of Bento, much as some might wish it so.
With apologies to Microsoft's Access, we regard FileMaker Pro as the premiere database software, not least because it is available on both major desktop platforms, the web and iOS (still no Android or Windows Phone version, sorry). A long-time strength of the program has been its ability to publish databases to the web reasonably easily, and this area has received something of a makeover in version 13, helping developers to create web- and mobile-friendly database-based apps with greater ease.
We used FileMaker back in the early days (well, version 4 or so), back when you needed database software in order to keep track of pretty much anything. We used it for asset management, contact lists, monthly analysis on advertising sales and a million other things. Today, both a business owner and a consumer are carrying around a number of databases around with them at all times -- from their iTunes and iPhoto libraries to CRM apps and Facebook. The web or the cloud can generate pages and whole apps out of database data, and thus now its just a question of how aware the user is that they are working with a database.
FileMaker Pro isn't just "a database program," it's the source of a lot of other programs and services that rely on databases. The more-expensive Advanced version includes developer tools that make it easy to turn your finely-tuned database into a mobile and/or web app. We haven't actively used FileMaker since the turn of the century, so coming back to FileMaker 13 was a bit of a shock for us -- but we got back into it pretty quickly, as the form we used it in then was all still there: it all comes back to defining fields, making records and creating relationships between these items and their presentation. Only now you have many more ways to share your accumulated data.
You can still use the raw, spreadsheet-esque direct entry methods (and drag-and-drop Excel files), or create a more eye-pleasing form to fill out -- it's up to you. As you enter data, you gain the power to search records far more detailed and numerous than you could ever keep in your head, share the data itself or just summaries of it with whomever you wish and in a variety of ways. The company even offers a free mobile app, FileMaker Go, which can create as well as open databases compatible with FMP 13.
If you're one of those people jumping from Bento to FileMaker Pro, don't throw that Bento app away just yet: it still works under Mavericks, and you can use it to transfer your Bento records to FileMaker. FileMaker Pro starts at $329 (1-4 licenses), and supports OS X 10.7 and later, and Windows 7 and 8 (only). Older databases in the FileMaker 7 format can be converted to v13, but other than that it works only with databases created in FileMaker Pro 12 and newer. Upgrades from FM 12 are $179.
For those new to the program, help resources are extensive and generous, and available right from the startup screen in written and visual formats that make learning the fundamental concepts easy and quick so users can get started. Beyond an emphasis on getting started, however, the help resources seemed oddly helter-skelter and overly broad.
We were able to stump the database very quickly by trying to find out if our old Bento templates could be opened by FM 13 (no, and it took us way too long to confirm that), but we relieved to find out that a) our Bento data could be imported and b) the built-in templates in FM 13 are reminiscent enough of Bento's basic themes to get up and running quickly (though we did resent having to re-design the field layouts).
In addition to importing data for a database from a variety of sources (ranging from spreadsheet-data CSV and XLS files to XML and ODBC sources), one can create an empty database or pick from one of the included templates, which offer both business and general starting points (with more of an emphasis on the former, as one might expect). The templates (inventory or asset management, time billing, event management, et cetera) are well-chosen and customizable, allowing users to really personalize and configure their database entry forms to fit their needs and workflow.
What's New in Version 13
The biggest changes in FM 13 deal with what was previously called "Instant Web Publishing" (in conjunction with the Server version), the introduction of saveable "Styles" encompassing all the elements of a layout (at last!), more touchscreen-centric layouts for mobile use, improved Starter Solutions, and support for iOS keyboards. The company has also made changes to its web and network licensing, charging annual fees for however many "concurrent connections" users make use of. This doesn't affect standalone FM Pro users, but is a factor for businesses and developers.
The overhauled web component is now called WebDirect, and lets users who have access to a FileMaker Server 13 deployment use their databases as web apps, tremendously helpful if one's database is very large or media-intense and thus too big to practically carry around on an iPhone. FM Server 13 now uses 256-bit AES encryption, and FileMaker Pro 13 supports that level of security as well. The Server Admin tool now only requires HTML5, eliminating the need for Java (a big step forward in our view).
Just to get our feet wet, we decided to create a simple database of our Criterion Collection DVDs, what might otherwise be a "home inventory" or "asset management" type database. Starting with one of the "starter solutions," we had it ready for input with about half an hour's tinkering time. We got a little flummoxed on how to insert a place for the DVD users could drag and drop artwork into, but a quick search provided the answer (we'd forgotten about the versatility of the "container fields," and they were much enhanced in FMP 12) and we were quite pleased with the result.
Another obvious and similar database one could use FileMaker Pro for that isn't really being addressed elsewhere is a vinyl/lp collection (we're avoiding the term "record" here because it could cause confusion with the database term "record"). This one took a little longer as we decided how deep we wanted to go with it, but a template found elsewhere provided some inspiration about fields we didn't originally think to add, and again a satisfactory effort was made fairly quickly.
The Field Picker option helps a lot in quickly creating and then adding field types to a layout, and getting in and out of layout mode was much more logical than in our previous experiences. We didn't explore the new "popover" and slide controls, but as long-time web surfers we have an inherent understanding of what they do, and how they make the records more web-friendly.
There's still a lot of manual entry to do to populate those records, but dragging and dropping graphics from the web or scans and arranging the fields for quick data entry made the process more enjoyable. Having a database one makes on a Mac show up minutes later in FileMaker Go on one's iPhone is very satisfying -- something we barely dreamed of in the late 90s.
The program continues to be the standard-bearer for flexible, elegant-looking databases that offer plenty of power under the hood while working across a variety of platforms (Android support is allegedly coming). We'd say that while FileMaker offers plenty of help data, the organization of it all needs something of an Apple-esque rethink, though we like the increased number of video tutorials. The implementation of WebDirect seems more straightforward, and scalable for those needing more than four concurrent users.
Users of FM 12 may be a little thrown by the sometimes-awkward compatibility -- you can't really freely interchange FM 13 and FM 12 files back and forth (as one might for collaborative projects) except through an extra compatibility step during saving -- and at present users on anything prior to Lion (OS X 10.7) or earlier versions of FileMaker are kind of locked out of many of the newer version's advantages, even in web publishing.
Particularly from the point of view of a user who is creating a database with an eye to making either a custom mobile version for their own use (through FileMaker Go) or as the groundwork for a future web and mobile app developed with the more advanced FileMaker tools, this upgrade is significant and important. For the more casual user, the improvements in layout controls (including some more "natural" tools based on web technologies) make creating a database design more pleasurable, more customizable and faster.
So, who is FileMaker Pro 13 for? It's primarily aimed at business users and organizations of all sizes, and even the most elegant templates can't hide FileMaker's organizational roots. While there are plenty of ways in which a home user could find a purpose for the program, for many of those categories (home inventory, collection management) there are other, cheaper options that should serve. For those with serious record-keeping needs and businesses with web and mobile deployments, however -- particularly those who are Mac-based -- this is the pinnacle of the art form, and with each iteration it gets better and better (even if its not without areas of in need of improvement, such as Bento migration and the way the program handles variables in fields).