Filemaker Pro is simpler than Microsoft equivalents

First published in Business in Vancouver, August 14, 2001, Issue #616: The high-tech office column


Last week, we started looking at databases; a once must-have product for personal computer users that somewhere along the way vanished from most people's desktops.

We looked at Intuit's Quickbase, a database that, hosted on the company's Web servers, is easy to create and use and free, at least for the first three databases per user.

Quickbase is affordable and, being online, accessible anywhere you have Web access. But its simplicity can be limiting and online can mean slow and too often not accessible.

Many people have Microsoft Access and Paradox database programs, included in the professional versions of Microsoft Office and Corel Word Perfect office suites. But the keyword here is professional. Neither of these products is particularly easy to work with; more people own them than use them.

Trying to balance database power with ease-of-use is a difficult task. The product that best pulls it off is Filemaker Pro, now with a new version 5.5 from Filemaker Inc. ($400, $250 upgrades). Although Filemaker Inc. is an Apple subsidiary, it's available for both Mac and Windows. In fact, version 5.5 runs on Windows 9x, NT and 2000 and natively on both the new Mac OS X and classic Mac OS versions.

Filemaker makes it easy to design attractive forms. Visual layout tools allow you to drag datafields around the page and add graphics. Templates are included to allow for fast start-up and customization. It's also easy to import data from other databases or spreadsheets; just drag your data file and drop it onto the Filemaker icon. Filemaker data files can be shared between the Mac and Windows versions of the programs.

After your data is arranged in an attractive form, Filemaker offers many advanced features. While similar features in Microsoft Access or Paradox require knowledge of database programming, they are more accessible in Filemaker. Tables can be linked, mailing labels created, data can be queried, and more, all without programming. Relatively simple scripts can be written, for example, automatically notifying creditors of overdue accounts.

Note that phrase "relatively simple." While accomplishing these sorts of tasks with Filemaker is easier than with Access or Paradox, expect to have to put in learning time.

New to version 5.5 is the ability to work with corporate databases. Now, it can be used to generate attractive graphics-laden reports from business data sources using real-time SQL queries. This, along with the program's network support, may make the new version of Filemaker more attractive to the IT departments in large organizations.

As well, Filemaker boasts of its ability to publish its databases to the Internet or a corporate Intranet. This, however, is not as easy as might be hoped. Users cannot simply send their database files to any Web host. Instead, the Web server must be running a copy of the $1,500 Filemaker Server and each data file must be configured to be Web-sharable. Once that's done, however, data can be viewed and optionally modified from any standard Web browser.

With the $800 Developer version, databases can be created that can be accessed by users who don't have a copy of Filemaker; they can add and modify data, without being able to change the database design. The ability to create both Mac and Windows versions of these stand-alone databases is an added bonus.

Finally, there's an $80 Mobile version, which gives Palm handheld users the ability to view and modify Filemaker data.

Trial versions of the basic and server versions are available for download from

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan