If databases were judged like beauty pageants, the latest upgrade to FileMaker Pro would be crowned Miss Universe, contend executives at FileMaker.
"We're the only one out there talking about building beautiful databases," said Ryan Rosenberg, vice president of marketing and service at the database maker. "The more attractive it looks, the more likely people are to use it.
"I guess that's a bit of our Apple heritage," Rosenberg continued, referring to FileMaker's history and Apple's reputation for aesthetically pleasing products. FileMaker was created in 1998 from the remains of Apple's former Claris unit, and it remains an Apple subsidiary.
Despite major new releases at least once every two years in the past decade, FileMaker's user interface had changed little since the late 1990s.
With Version 10, however, FileMaker did a sweeping makeover of the interface, which Rosenberg compared to the controversial "Ribbon" interface in Microsoft Office 2007.
Version 10 also includes 30 updated prebuilt layouts called "Starter Solutions" as well as 10 new application "themes" that allow users to easily display data as, for example, address books replete with a picture of each contact, said Rosenberg.
The enhancements to the user interface are more than skin-deep, as they make FileMaker Pro 10 users faster and more productive, he said. "We may not be the most powerful database or handle the most transactions, but we are the easiest to use," Rosenberg contended.
The decision to give FileMaker a facelift wasn't made lightly. Like Microsoft, FileMaker's customer base is broad, from individuals to departments within Fortune 500 firms, most of whom lack much technical expertise. Few FileMaker users are database administrators, he noted.
As such, changing the interface, even if it is an improvement, runs the risk of causing disruption for loyal, long-standing customers -- 14 million copies of FileMaker have been sold since the DOS-based initial version, called Nutshell, was released in the early 1980s. "We had to make sure as we gave FileMaker a modern look, that existing users are still well-served," he said.
To do so, FileMaker ensured the menu and keystroke shortcuts for commands remained the same, aiming to pacify power users and prevent the sort complaints directed at Microsoft after it released Office 2007's Ribbon interface, Rosenberg said. "Everything is still there as you thought it would be," he said.
Though FileMaker Pro 10's revamp relies heavily on templates and starter solutions that are the hallmark of FileMaker's Bento database, Rosenberg was quick to differentiate FileMaker from its US$49 sibling.
"They are very different worlds," he said, adding that while FileMaker is used by everyone from individuals to enterprises, "Bento is a personal database that takes its influence from the iTunes Library. Seventy-five percent of Bento users use it at home. And it's for Mac users only."
FileMaker Pro 10 includes some under-the-hood improvements, too. Custom searches can now be saved. Reports can be changed on the fly and as quickly in some cases as re-sorting a spreadsheet, he said. There are also script triggers and direct links to e-mail servers for those using FileMaker Pro to manage contact lists.
The Server edition of FileMaker 10 adds the ability to publish data to iPhone-formatted Web pages.
FileMaker Pro 10 costs US$299 for new customers and $179 for upgrades, while FileMaker Server 10 costs US$999 new and $599 for an upgrade. There are also Advanced flavors of each version that cost several times more.