A versatile database tool grows up.
Company: FileMaker; www.filemaker.com
System Requirements: Mac: G3 with 256 MB RAM, Mac OS X 10.3.9 or higher; PC: Pentium III 500 MHz, 256 MB RAM, Windows 2000 SP4 or XP SP2.
Price/Grade: $149 for the standard package (educators' pricing); educator tool
Pros: Useful new features previously available only as add-ons; PDF option extremely useful; cross-platform compatible; powerful, easy-to-use functionality
Cons: Not inexpensive; standard package allows a maximum of five simultaneous users while more powerful Server version allows maximum of 125 files served by a single copy
FileMaker was once a simple, inexpensive database development tool which could be used to handle very lightweight and basic database tasks. Rarely deployed for high-volume use, FileMaker found a niche in settings like schools and classrooms. However, along the way to its newest release, version 8, FileMaker became a much more powerful database development platform.
FileMaker 8 is a winner, and it deserves strong consideration if you're looking for a tool that capably bridges the gap between high-end platforms like Oracle or Microsoft SQL Server and pure end-user tools like Excel. FileMaker has some other specific advantages; its cross-platform compatibility between Macintosh and Windows is particularly versatile, and it has a history of use in K-12 environments. Chances are someone in your school is already using it for classroom or administrative purposes.
FileMaker 8 offers some entirely new functionality and features previously available only through third-party add-ons. The PDF options are extremely useful. You can save files and data in PDF format, which guarantees that data will be viewed in exactly the same format you see on your end. You can also save output from a FileMaker application as a PDF form, which can be e-mailed to be filled out by anyone with a PDF reader. Easy Microsoft Excel import and export, potentially a huge timesaver, is another out-of-the-box option. And e-mailing data from any field inside a FileMaker application is a quick and easy operation. This is particularly useful for quickly firing off data from a query or report to a colleague.
Other key enhancements include a simplified table import capability, a clean entity-relationship editor for more powerful database design, and several features that enhance and simplify data searching, sorting, importing, and exporting. A new tab control helps make application layouts cleaner and easier to use, and the layout alignment tools, allowing simple alignment of text and fields on a form, are drastically simpler than before. Some of the more subtle enhancements can make your FileMaker applications significantly easier to use: auto-complete of field contents, calendar drop-downs, mouse-wheel support, and a visual spell-checker all make end-users' jobs easier. And FileMaker Pro still allows for one-click deployment of applications to the Web, one of its most powerful features for the novice developer. Instant Web Publishing can be accessed remotely with Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.x or Firefox 1.x on Windows, and Safari or Firefox 1.x on Mac.
Filemaker Pro 8 lets users easily save files as PDFs and allows for the importing of files from Microsoft Excel.
FileMaker isn't the cheapest option around — at $149 (educational pricing) for the basic product, $249 for the Developer (now called Advanced) version, and between $500 and $1,200 for the Server and Advanced Server versions, FileMaker 8 is something you'll need to budget for. Other robust open-source databases such as MySQL and PostgreSQL provide a lower cost of entry, but the price you pay for FileMaker gets you an ease of use which no open-source alternative can yet match. And the Mobile version of FileMaker 8, not yet shipping, will allow deployment to Palm and PocketPC devices, allowing a very wide range of platform options.
It's wise to be aware of FileMaker's inherent limitations before deploying it as a centralized resource for an entire district, however. The standard FileMaker Pro package allows a maximum of five simultaneous users to access a FileMaker application/database. That may be fine for a small classroom or individual application, but even the much more powerful Server version, which allows a maximum of 100 Web-based clients, 50 ODBC/JDBC (database connection) clients, and 250 FileMaker Pro 7/8 clients, has a potentially much more limiting maximum of 125 database files served by a single copy of the product. Given that each database application can potentially make use of multiple files, that could prove to be a serious restriction on a centralized deployment for an entire school or district.
But taking these requirements into account, FileMaker 8 is still a very solid family of products, providing powerful, easy-to-use functionality; cross-platform compatibility; and enhanced out-of-the-box options for low or moderate use data-driven applications.
Richard Hoffman is a contributing editor for Network Computing.