FileMaker 14 review: 30 years old and it's still an innovative database

FileMaker 14’s new navigation and control elements resembles the old header or footer layout parts, but it doesn’t scroll out of sight in form view and it is always displayed at 100 percent. Here, the listing of records has been zoomed out considerably, but the navigation part stays full size.

FileMaker 14’s new navigation and control elements resembles the old header or footer layout parts, but it doesn’t scroll out of sight in form view and it is always displayed at 100 percent. Here, the listing of records has been zoomed out considerably, but the navigation part stays full size.

Major improvements to FileMaker's infrastructure in its last two releases (versions 12 and 13) required a new file format (.fmp12) and sent a lot of developers back to school. FileMaker 14 maintains the existing file format and solidifies some of these earlier advancements (especially in WebDirect) but also keeps the pressure on developers by introducing powerful innovations that affect the design of databases for FileMaker Pro, FileMaker Go, and web browsers.

FileMaker Pro: Layout design

Since the news for solution developers applies equally to FileMaker Pro 14 and FileMaker Pro 14 Advanced, I refer to both when I say "FileMaker Pro." (These products have the same core feature set, but I do offer an overview of the differences.) Whichever tool you use, it's easier than ever before to create consistent and attractive layouts for your users to work in, whatever platform they're on.

FileMaker Pro 14 introduces the first change in ages to the basic part structure of layouts: a new part for navigation elements. Navigation parts can be placed at the top and/or at the bottom of a layout, and at first glance, look like the old header and footer layout parts. But unlike headers and footers, navigation parts don't scroll out of view and they aren't affected when users zoom in or out. I expect that FileMaker 14 developers will soon start using the navigation part for UI widgets like buttons, and will leave headers and footers for printed reports.

FileMaker 14 innovates in another surprising area: buttons. For starters, you can now format buttons to display text only, or text with an icon, or if you're the silent type, an icon without text. FileMaker Pro 14 provides a generous assortment of ready-made buttons for your use, but you can create your own if you like and add them to the assortment.

A more significant new feature is a new layout object called a button bar. It's always been possible to drop multiple buttons on a layout, then copy and paste them on another layout. Invariably, however, you'd spend a lot of time fiddling with the placement of individual buttons. The new button bar object eliminates most of the busy work, because the buttons in a button bar are defined as a set from the get-go.

Equally--if not more important--the button bar eliminates an old headache for developers and users alike. Developers of large solutions often want their buttons to have calculated or dynamic labels. There are many reasons why this matters, but one reason is that it makes it possible to change a button's label simply by modifying the calculated result; if you couldn't do that, you've have to edit each instance of the button on possibly scores of layouts, one button at a time. The old way to get dynamically labeled buttons involved defining fields in a utility table, placing the fields on layouts and turning them into de facto buttons by attaching actions to them. This works okay but has an undesirable side-effect: when users are shown a dialog that lists the fields on the current layout--for example, the sort dialog--the fields used as objects will be listed, too, even though they are not data fields at all. The presence of those user-interface elements in the dialogs inevitably confuses users. If you use button bars in FileMaker Pro 14, sort and export dialogs will display only data fields to users. This is a great example of how a rather technical new feature, put to use properly by a developer, ultimately makes life easier for end-users.

There are other improvements in the design tools, including some modest improvements to the handling of custom styles, but I do want to mention the new placeholder label. This lets you display the field label right inside the field, which, at least in some circumstances, can make for much cleaner data-entry interfaces.

FileMaker Pro: Scripting and calculations

For advanced developers, the most welcomed change in FileMaker Pro is likely to be the redesigned and renamed "script workplace"--in particular, the ability to enter scripts almost entirely from the keyboard. Those of you who don't spend hours every day scripting will be happy to know that you can continue to build scripts by pulling steps from the script step library. But developers who daydream in code will be delighted that they can now create a new script and simply start typing. You can add script parameters from the keyboard, too, and even edit calc formulas inline; and when the calc formula is a little too long to edit inline, you can switch to the more spacious old-fashioned calculation editor. This change doesn't make a whit of difference to end users, but FileMaker adepts are going to love it.

The script workplace lets you keep multiple scripts open for editing at the same time, which can be useful. It also now shows the listing of existing scripts and the list of script steps in panes on the left and right sides of the editing area that can be shown or hidden, as you like. If you have all the script steps in your head and can type well, you can just hide the script steps pane and forget about it. One quibble: I wish the list of existing scripts could be made wider, because it's not wide enough to display long script names.

At about this point you're probably getting nervous that I'm going to blab on about the ability to run FileMaker Pro in 32-bit or 64-bit, how cool it is that we can use "

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