Examined: FileMaker Pro 15 ecosystem for macOS, Windows, and iOS

Posted:
in Mac Software edited December 2016
The latest FileMaker Pro 15.0.1.118 is at the center of an entire ecosystem aiming to help individuals and whole corporations manage their data. AppleInsider examines the platform's main app, which is now -- mostly -- macOS Sierra-ready.




FileMaker Pro has always been a tool for creating and running databases: it's one of the few apps that does practically nothing when you first buy it, yet ultimately can run your business, your corporation and for some people provide an entire livelihood.

This long history means FileMaker predates the FileMaker Corporation and even its predecessor Claris. The very first version of FileMaker was released in 1985, with the mantle handed over to Claris in 1987. FileMaker has been updated continuously, through the 68000 days, spanning all of the PowerPC days, evolving through the dissolution of Claris which culminated into the formation of FileMaker Inc., leading into today's Intel and iOS environment.

The new, updated platform consists of eight versions -- three each for Mac and Windows, plus one for iOS, and a recently updated online edition.

Central to all of them, though, is FileMaker Pro 15.0.1.188. It's not only a tool for creating databases, it's the same software that you or any staff you have will use to enter and retrieve data.
Despite being 30 years old and having gone through 15 major versions, there is still more that the FileMaker platform can do.
It has competition: 4th Dimension is still available on the Mac and Microsoft Access is on Windows. Access is the most powerful of the three but it is also the most arcane and difficult to use. FileMaker Pro has arguably been the best combination of use and function and version 15 has improved both.

There's really only one major improvement for the most technical users in version 15 but it is significant: you can now connect FileMaker Pro to more SQL databases. So you can enjoy its ease of use as a front-end to more corporate databases running on standard SQL.

So that's using a database app to connect to databases in order to run databases. To stop the word from becoming meaningless, FileMaker and all such companies say that their database apps are for making solutions. For example: a Human Resources department needs a HR solution.




When you first start FileMaker Pro, you do have the option of various sample solutions. None of them are extensive, and none are likely to be exactly right for your needs, but their job is to demonstrate what you can do with the app. There are example Inventory database solutions, Content Management and To Do tasks, among others.

Even if one of these is close to what you need, you're still going to have to learn how FileMaker Pro works in order to adjust the template. The proper way to learn is to skip the samples and start from scratch. Then the best way to start from scratch is to close FileMaker Pro 15 and get out pen and paper. Think about what you want your database to do, who is going to use it and where.

You're not going to be able to figure out everything in the finest detail because you will always think of something more you need, and especially so when your database is up and working. Yet the more you can plan in advance, the easier FileMaker Pro is to get started with.

Say you're a small business and you just want to record what work you've got on. You know that you need a description of the job, you need to know who hired you. There's probably a deadline or a date you've got to finish by and there's hopefully a fee.

You'll want to record that information quickly and you'll want to be able to check it later to see what work is due, what's done and ready to be invoiced for. That's something else to record: whether the work is finished or not. Then you'll have an invoice number. Give every piece of work a job number too and this is what you'll end up with.




This is Manage Database, the most daunting part of FileMaker Pro. And it gets even more detailed. Each row is one of these items you need, such as the description and whether it's done, just each type of item given a name like DR_Client. To make entering data faster, you can take an item and constrain it: say that rather than typing in the client's name, you instead want a drop-down list to pick from. That looks like this:




This is a lot less daunting than the Manage Database section. In FileMaker Pro you are generally concerned equally with how your database looks as you are about what it does, because you can be. That's not just for aesthetic reasons, it's for practical ones.

If you have an assistant entering all your new work, this drop-down list doesn't just mean it's quicker for them to input data, it means they can't mistype a client's name. Later, when you get FileMaker Pro to run a report of all the money owed to you by the Acme Corporation, you don't miss thousands of dollars just because your assistant typed "Ame Corp.," instead.

But, FileMaker can go deeper. Set the database so that if you choose Acme Corporation from the drop-down list it automatically pops Bugs Bunny as the person who commissioned you. Perhaps you give Acme a 10 percent discount: you can get FileMaker Pro to automatically figure that in when it calculates your invoice total.

You can also get FileMaker Pro to calculate fees and even dates: use it to produce an invoice that says money is due in 30 days and have it automatically say what date that is.

This is an extraordinarily powerful tool that comes down to you and what you can make of it. It is not an easy application to use, yet that's more from the range and scope of what it can do rather than from it being as awkwardly difficult to use as Access. You are not going to buy this today and tomorrow be running the HR solution that we mentioned earlier for an international corporation. What you are likely to do, though, is buy this today and in about a week become a fan.

FileMaker Pro is very satisfying to work with and at times it is even a delight: just as you realize how complicated a function you want your database to do, you find that FileMaker Pro has options to make it possible. Microsoft Access has users but FileMaker Pro has very many fans.

That means it also has a community of users who are generous about sharing advice and experiences. More than that, it means there is even a community of FileMaker Pro professionals: people who have spent their entire careers solely working on FileMaker Pro solutions for businesses. Larger corporations that use this software will have these people on staff, but whatever your need and size of company, there is a FileMaker Pro expert ready to be hired.

These are the people who will gravitate toward the second of the platform's apps, FileMaker Pro 15 Advanced: it adds more tools for creating sophisticated databases and speeding up options with more automation and scripting.



On the left there's a job book database as seen by its user with drop-down menus, buttons and text fields to make entering new work faster. On the right is the same thing but showing every element of that layout and how you can adjust it. Add in fields by dragging and dropping, write explanatory text, move areas around to suit your needs. Every part of the FileMaker Pro platform is about entering and also retrieving data in the most visual and easy to understand ways.

The FileMaker Pro platform is aimed at that wide range of users and needs, but right now there is a fuzzy middle ground that is the tool's Achilles heel. If you are a one man or woman band who works at your Mac or PC, FileMaker Pro has you covered. If you're an international corporation with sales people entering data all across the world, you're fine. Yet if you're someone whose business is small, but you need to enter and refer to data away from your office, there's a problem.

To get access to your FileMaker Pro data away from your office, you need to use another product such as FileMaker Pro Server. This is a tool to host your database and let any number of people use it anywhere they are, but it costs more. The regular FileMaker Pro costs $329 (or $108 per year) whereas FileMaker Pro Advanced is $549 (or $180/year) and FileMaker Pro Server is $1,044 ($348/year).

Those are only three prices: there are different options for teams and larger numbers of customers. You'll have to see the official site for the details that apply to you. Also note, though, that the company regularly runs a Buy One Give One promotion where when you purchase a copy for yourself, you can send someone else one for free.

Nonetheless, the leap from the regular edition to the server version is big and especially so because you'll need both. Really you're recommended to run the Server version on a separate computer, so there are hardware costs associated with deployment, too. It's more than worth it for companies of a certain size, but harder to justify for small ones.

There are alternatives, however, starting with the free FileMaker Go 15 for iOS. This app was updated significantly with version 15 of the platform but you can't create any databases on it, you can only use existing ones. That sounds fine and you can move your database over to your iPad easily enough. You can later move it back, too.

What you can't do without the Server version is have your data automatically saved and updated. That's probably not a great difficulty if you're an individual as it just means having to remember to move the data back and forth each time you get to your office. If you have more than one person needing to use it, though, it is a major issue because you may both need to see what the other has added or updated.

You can use the online version of FileMaker Pro: FileMaker WebDirect lets you run your existing databases through a web browser. Then there is FileMaker Cloud: it's like having your own server but instead you're using space on Amazon Web Services.

FileMaker Cloud looks likely to become the solution for smaller businesses just branching out into on-the-go databases, but it's a new feature still being rolled out: currently it's only available in the U.S. and Canada.

It would still be good to have some way to use iCloud for one person bands to allow use of a database on a Mac and an iPad or iPhone. It would also be great to have a way to create new database solutions entirely on iOS, like, say, Bento did.

If iCloud support ever comes, it isn't being promised yet. What is promised and you would imagine is an easier addition is compatibility with macOS Sierra. The company initially advised against updating to the latest operating system and still says that an update is coming that will address the issue. We've been running it without any difficulties, but some users are reporting problems with printing and getting error messages about fonts.

It's disappointing that a company with such deep ties to Apple wasn't ready on day one of Sierra and still isn't completely compatible now, some months on. Yet those same Apple ties may well mean that macOS Sierra itself will be updated to help.

So, despite being 30 years old and having gone through 15 major versions, there is still more that the FileMaker platform can do.
macplusplusMike Wuerthele
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 33
    Filemaker has always been a square peg trying to fill a round hole.  It is a relational database (initially one of the very few that supported Apple's OS) owned by Apple, but never really promoted or integrated into Apple products.  Bento (a small stand along version of Filemaker for iOS) was great - easy to use, able to tie back into the larger database, but really most of what it did could have been done easier using a flat file data base (such as Excel or Numbers).  The lack of wider SQL integration is certainly welcome in FMP v15, but for many companies this is too little too late as they have moved on to cloud based databases (Oracle, Sales Force, and SAP for example).  I volunteer at Burning Man and they dumped Filemaker for SalesForce about two years ago.

    What Filemaker AND Apple need to do is sit back and figure out a better way for folks to perform tasks (see "jobs theory" story: https://9to5mac.com/2016/11/30/aapl-culture-strategy/ )

    The year Steve introduced the iPhone at MacWorld I spoke with a number of senior engineers at Apple and begged them to look at Tableau ( http://www.tableau.com ) an amazing data visualization program that was groundbreaking back then (and still is).  Then along came Prezi ( https://prezi.com ), one of the coolest presentation tools on the planet.

    Combine the best parts of these three programs, deeply integrate with an upgraded version of Apple's still "second tier" productivity suite (iWork or whatever they are calling it today) and you could have a simply amazing productivity application/platform that could be scaled for consumers to Fortune 500 companies.   Apple has always been about providing the tools for folks to create, enrich, and enjoy they lives.  A combination like this could be amazing on so many different levels (further integrate Paper by 53, and integrate with Notes).  Data, visualization/manipulation, presentation - the keys to any successful project.

    All of the pieces are there - so yes you could bounce from one to the other for a project (and I do!).   But really, who wants to learn all this and do that.  Oh, and while I am dreaming, let's not forget integrating Automation...

    pscooter63ksecrandominternetpersonpalominejony0
  • Reply 2 of 33
    "It would still be good to have some way to use iCloud for one person bands to allow use of a database on a Mac and an iPad or iPhone."

    This is not possible as stated in the article. Meanwhile the same database can be copied from and uploadad to iCloud. 1) Enable "Desktop & Documents Folders" in iCloud options in macOS Sierra 2) Keep the databases in a folder in Documents folder on the Mac. Consolidating all the database files into a single file by copying tables may make things simpler provided that the resulting database is not too big 3) In iOS enable iCloud Drive. Then you can download the iCloud database into Filemaker Go realm directly from Filemaker Go, or you can download it into iCloud Drive app in iOS and then "Copy to" Filemaker Go; both replacing or not the previous instances if any.

    If the whole database is too big a smaller intermediate database may be created for use in Filemaker Go.

    Enabling the Filemaker Pro database sharing on the Mac and accessing that host directly from Filemaker Go in iOS is the old way, but this requires tinkering with the router to enable the necessary ports on the Mac side.

    The good news is there are a lot of shared information within the Filemaker community for such uses.
  • Reply 3 of 33
    emoeller said:
    wider SQL integration is certainly welcome in FMP v15, but for many companies this is too little too late as they have moved on to cloud based databases (Oracle, Sales Force, and SAP for example).
    There is no problem in using SQL databases from within Filemaker Pro even interactively thanks to ODBC drivers. For remote databases, security concerns arise and many ISPs prohibit direct access to their mySQL hosts. In such a case, downloading a backup of the database in SQL format via https, restoring that backup into a local server using a tool like phpMyAdmin or Navicat for mySQL, and using this local database interactively within Filemaker Pro is the fastest and most secure way.
  • Reply 4 of 33
    KPKP Posts: 1unconfirmed, member
    It would be best to not write about things of which you "know nothing", Sargent Shultz. You do readers a disservice with your factual errors. "It has competition: 4th Dimension is still available on the Mac and Microsoft Access is on Windows." 4th Dimension has been available on Windows since 1995, more than 20 years ago. "Access is the most powerful of the three but it is also the most arcane and difficult to use." Wrong again. 4th Dimension is far, far more powerful than both. Simply browsing the http://4D.com website illustrates that it has more capability than either Filemaker or Access. "FileMaker Pro has arguably been the best combination of use and function and version 15 has improved both." Filemaker was originally for "do it yourselfers", where simple needs and requirements didn't warrant investment in a longer learning curve or a professionally developed solution. Filemaker still meets that market, and on Windows, competes with Access. It has grown a lot in capabilities over the years, and has plenty of professional developers that can carry it to max.
  • Reply 5 of 33
    crowleycrowley Posts: 5,771member
    Very odd that Apple keeps this going as a subsidiary.  Would've expected then to sell it off, or spin it off completely.
    bdkennedy1002
  • Reply 6 of 33
    Completely off topic, but if any developers read this, here is my idea for free. An iOS app that can keep track of how often you use each app on your device and put them in descending order of that frequency starting with the home screen. 
    pscooter63
  • Reply 7 of 33
    Completely off topic, but if any developers read this, here is my idea for free. An iOS app that can keep track of how often you use each app on your device and put them in descending order of that frequency starting with the home screen. 
    Each app is sandboxed and there's no API which that allows a developer to access usage data of other apps he has no ownership of.
  • Reply 8 of 33
    crowley said:
    Very odd that Apple keeps this going as a subsidiary.  Would've expected then to sell it off, or spin it off completely.
    The thing about software is there's very little capital overhead to keep it going. Filemaker is essentially free cash flow to , unlike products like the Thunderbolt Display for example (which I'm sad to see go).
    edited December 2016
  • Reply 9 of 33
    It boggles my mind that this app still exists. As a former user, it's a bloated mess and I can't believe Apple still supports it. Wait, yes I can. MacBook Pro.
    edited December 2016
  • Reply 10 of 33
    ksecksec Posts: 1,551member
    emoeller said:
    Filemaker has always been a square peg trying to fill a round hole.  It is a relational database (initially one of the very few that supported Apple's OS) owned by Apple, but never really promoted or integrated into Apple products.  Bento (a small stand along version of Filemaker for iOS) was great - easy to use, able to tie back into the larger database, but really most of what it did could have been done easier using a flat file data base (such as Excel or Numbers).  The lack of wider SQL integration is certainly welcome in FMP v15, but for many companies this is too little too late as they have moved on to cloud based databases (Oracle, Sales Force, and SAP for example).  I volunteer at Burning Man and they dumped Filemaker for SalesForce about two years ago.

    What Filemaker AND Apple need to do is sit back and figure out a better way for folks to perform tasks (see "jobs theory" story: https://9to5mac.com/2016/11/30/aapl-culture-strategy/ )

    The year Steve introduced the iPhone at MacWorld I spoke with a number of senior engineers at Apple and begged them to look at Tableau ( http://www.tableau.com ) an amazing data visualization program that was groundbreaking back then (and still is).  Then along came Prezi ( https://prezi.com ), one of the coolest presentation tools on the planet.

    Combine the best parts of these three programs, deeply integrate with an upgraded version of Apple's still "second tier" productivity suite (iWork or whatever they are calling it today) and you could have a simply amazing productivity application/platform that could be scaled for consumers to Fortune 500 companies.   Apple has always been about providing the tools for folks to create, enrich, and enjoy they lives.  A combination like this could be amazing on so many different levels (further integrate Paper by 53, and integrate with Notes).  Data, visualization/manipulation, presentation - the keys to any successful project.

    All of the pieces are there - so yes you could bounce from one to the other for a project (and I do!).   But really, who wants to learn all this and do that.  Oh, and while I am dreaming, let's not forget integrating Automation...

    The problem is business can not rely or depends on a tools that that dont know if it would still exist in 5 years. Especially this is Apple. I REALLY REALLY would like to use Filemaker. But this uncertainty is worth business paying more for things like SAP or Saleforces.

    It is the same with iWork. Hence why even companies using Mac are still buying Office. ( Actually Office for Mac is pretty damn nice, much better then Windows version )
    edited December 2016 randominternetperson
  • Reply 11 of 33
    The first version of FileMaker I used was 2.1, and eventually left it behind when I changed jobs.  By that time, it had finally gained relational capabilities.  I still keep an older version around to open personal databases I still use, but have long since jumped off the upgrade train once the fees stopped being sensible for individual hobbyist users who don't need the latest features*.

    For me, Bento might have been a good substitute, had it not been comparatively crippled, and eventually discontinued.

    *I find it amusing that OS compatibility is one of those features.  What's not amusing is how an Apple subsidiary doesn't have a fully compatible version of its software ready for release with each new OS release from the mothership.  That's embarrassing.
    edited December 2016
  • Reply 12 of 33
    emoeller said:
    Filemaker has always been a square peg trying to fill a round hole.  It is a relational database (initially one of the very few that supported Apple's OS) owned by Apple, but never really promoted or integrated into Apple products.  Bento (a small stand along version of Filemaker for iOS) was great - easy to use, able to tie back into the larger database, but really most of what it did could have been done easier using a flat file data base (such as Excel or Numbers).  The lack of wider SQL integration is certainly welcome in FMP v15, but for many companies this is too little too late as they have moved on to cloud based databases (Oracle, Sales Force, and SAP for example).  I volunteer at Burning Man and they dumped Filemaker for SalesForce about two years ago.

    What Filemaker AND Apple need to do is sit back and figure out a better way for folks to perform tasks (see "jobs theory" story: https://9to5mac.com/2016/11/30/aapl-culture-strategy/ )

    The year Steve introduced the iPhone at MacWorld I spoke with a number of senior engineers at Apple and begged them to look at Tableau ( http://www.tableau.com ) an amazing data visualization program that was groundbreaking back then (and still is).  Then along came Prezi ( https://prezi.com ), one of the coolest presentation tools on the planet.

    Combine the best parts of these three programs, deeply integrate with an upgraded version of Apple's still "second tier" productivity suite (iWork or whatever they are calling it today) and you could have a simply amazing productivity application/platform that could be scaled for consumers to Fortune 500 companies.   Apple has always been about providing the tools for folks to create, enrich, and enjoy they lives.  A combination like this could be amazing on so many different levels (further integrate Paper by 53, and integrate with Notes).  Data, visualization/manipulation, presentation - the keys to any successful project.

    All of the pieces are there - so yes you could bounce from one to the other for a project (and I do!).   But really, who wants to learn all this and do that.  Oh, and while I am dreaming, let's not forget integrating Automation...

    They could call it something like "AppleWorks". (or something)
  • Reply 13 of 33
    jblongzjblongz Posts: 146member
    Seems like the old way of thinking didn't change.  Apple will lose you in the dust quickly with that mentality.
  • Reply 14 of 33
    rezwitsrezwits Posts: 604member
    Dude FileMaker ROCKS! since 1991! FileMaker II uh!
  • Reply 15 of 33
    Wow, I can't believe this is still alive...
    time to start afresh, I would have thought.
    I wonder what kind of a mess their code base is in...
  • Reply 16 of 33
    "...some users are reporting problems with printing..."

    More like: With Sierra, FileMaker (not only v. 15) will only print to a PDF. The "workaround," according to FileMaker, is "be happy and print the PDF."

    Amazing that FileMaker would not consider printing database reports to be a base-line expectation within the up-to-date system software owned by the parent company..
  • Reply 17 of 33
    There is no sense in which FileMaker is a relational database. The arcane and tricky solutions which FileMaker forces on developers to do the things which are trivial in real relational databases is unprecedented. 

    The filemaker team and corporation actually have no idea what a relational database is -- literally. The design and documentation for FileMaker market and believe they have a relational database because one can build tables with common fields. They could be any more ignorant and uneducated in the field of computer science if they tried. Now, of course, I understand that the definition and science of relational databases is only about 50 years old, coming up on E.F. Codd's 1969 paper defining them, so one might want to give them some slack. 

    In FileMaker it's impossible to actually build an application in which the tables are true relations (which is what it means to be a relational database: table == relation). 

    I grant it that filemaker has a reasonable graphical interface which is simple to use and beats most interfaces into datasets and seems more stable than Access, which gets more unstable with every iteration (Access 97 was the last version which worked well). That is all, however.

    I found the best solution to those wanting a real powerful relational database wholly cross platform with a quite acceptable if not superior interface and FREE to boot is Oracle XE using the embedded Apex, running under the VM VirtualBox. This combination is vastly superior to anything on the market. 
  • Reply 18 of 33
    There were so many inaccurate statements, both in the article and in the comments; I'm a Certified FileMaker developer and have a hosting company that specializes in FileMaker hosting (for 18 years now), so I do know the platform and can speak to some of the errors:

    To begin with, FileMaker WebDirect is NOT a "cloud version of FileMaker;" it's a way to access and use a database solution from a web browser, but it doesn't allow the user to modify the database schema or make design changes. It's an excellent tool (albeit a little pricy), but it's not the same as Adobe's web-based apps like Dreamweaver and so on.

    Second: having used 4D and Access over the years, I see nothing about either of these that is, as the article said, more powerful. FileMaker connects easily with a wide variety of external data sources, including MySQL, Oracle, and lots of ODBC sources; it's much faster to design than Access, and much easier to navigate than 4D. In addition, the wide user base of the FileMaker platform means that there are lots of FileMaker consultants all over the world, many more than can be found in the 4D world. This translates to more innovating, more places to look for programming assistance, and lots of places to go for FileMaker hosting.

    Third: FileMaker Pro Advanced doesn't allow for more programming options than FileMaker Pro; what it DOES do is to provide a couple of tools that aid the designer--a debugging tool, a tool for watching variables and field values, a tool for creating standalone runtime solutions, and a tool for creating custom menus. Using FileMaker Pro (not Advanced), one can write and implement the same scripts as with FM Pro Advanced, and the graphical tools are identical in the 2 versions of the application.

    LARRYJW said this: "In FileMaker it's impossible to actually build an application in which the tables are true relations (which is what it means to be a relational database: table == relation)." That is pure nonsense, and he clearly has no experience with FileMaker; I have solutions with over 100 related tables in them; one can either put all the tables into a single database file, or have them spread among multiple files. In either case, the tables can be as relational as one might wish. The tables don't have "common fields;" the design schema allows the user to relate tables just as one would with SQL. LARRYJW needs to look at it before he makes incorrect assertions.

    In fact, FileMaker also has the ability to use SQL queries for finding and using data. For the record, FileMaker became fully relational back in the early 90s.

    FileMaker is also extensible using a wide variety of plugins that do all sorts of things, like allowing users to write PHP or Javascript and use it from within their solutions (for things like geopositioning maps and more complex design), or for processing credit cards, generating and manipulating PDFs (combining, trimming, etc.), a wide variety of dialog boxes, PBX (phone) integration, and much more.

    FileMaker 15 has seen lots of improvements both in its design tools and in its extensibility; I can write a single solution in FileMaker, and deploy it across Macs, Windows, iOS devices and in any web browser. What this means is that the client can pay to have a solution written ONE time and use it on multiple platforms--something that is certainly not possible elsewhere quite so easily.

    Finally, the FileMaker platform allows for extensibility using custom web applications; I've written dozens of them, from shopping carts to registration systems, POS systems, blogs and other tools. Using a combination of FileMaker's API for the web (or another that is also PHP-based and works great) and JQuery, PHP and smart HTML programming, a good app designer can write some amazing tools for the web. 

    If you're interested in getting your FileMaker database hosted or need consulting advice, look at the Longterm Solutions website for lots of useful information (http://www.longtermsolutions.com).





    macplusplushucom2000jony0
  • Reply 19 of 33
    Another totally erroneous assertion:

    "The problem is business can not rely or depends on a tools that that dont know if it would still exist in 5 years."

    FileMaker Inc. has made a profit for EVERY year of its existence; it has millions of users, has a growing user base, has a large network of professional designers all over the world. 

    The person who made the comment above talked about SalesForce as a better alternative; to begin with, SalesForce hasn't been around for 30 years. 
    macplusplusawilliams87jony0
  • Reply 20 of 33
    ben20ben20 Posts: 119member
    Great database. What is missing, and since it's owned by Apple, is the direct hosting in the iCloud as I have it for Pages, Numbers etc. Not sure what they are waiting for.....but I wouldn't be suprised if the next version offers that.
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