First of all, though I have what could be considered a small business (landscape), I’m not a business kind of guy. I’m not an engineer, either. I also know only a little about databases. I imagine that makes me like a lot of you.
I needed something to keep track of my business, however. I was doing OK with spreadsheets in ClarisWorks, but I thought it would be easier to have all the information in one place, more integrated. I had different things to keep track of; some accounting, but also things like jobs, To-Do lists, materials to buy, etc., so I needed something flexible. Since I was going to have to spend time with it every day, it had to be both convenient and aesthetic-no boring prefab Windows-looking do-it-our-way crap
FileMaker Pro 3 fit the bill. I must admit I was a little intimidated at first. Though I’d created a small database in ClarisWorks for landscape plant info, it was nothing like this. There were so many more choices. I could create buttons (by just dragging them onto the layout). I could create scripts (multi-step operations, much like macros). I could attach them to the buttons. And they actually worked!
Basically, even though FileMaker was much more complex than ClarisWorks, I found it easier to use. Somehow it required less knowledge of the inner workings of calculations, since there were other, easier ways to do things. The layout tools were also far superior (though still familiar).
The big addition in version 3 was relational links. It sounds very abstract, but it’s not that hard to do. It allows you to store similar related info in separate files, allowing them to share it, linking to each other via some unique criteria, like an ID number.
For example, I have one file with all my customer’s info (phone numbers, etc.) and another file for their projects. The projects file has most of the data you’d need for an invoice, such as hours, materials, etc. Linking the two allows the customer’s info to be automatically imported into the invoice. If I change anything, it’s updated instantly in both files.
The link allows me to see what project(s) I may be doing for that person, and go straight to them, just by hitting a button, rather than having to search.
There is a separate “To-Do” file that is also linked. That way I can easily jot in a new errand, meeting, etc.. I created my own unique shopping list showing the jobs, the materials (along with their respective stores), and even a check box list of tools needed. If I print that, it’s hard to go wrong (I still have to read it, however). FileMaker can “slide” the objects so that the printed output is well-formatted, eliminating unwanted extra spaces.
Version 3 supports “container” fields, where you can put pictures, sounds, or movies. It only supports PICT and TIFF at this time however (see note, below). It is AppleScript-able, and there are ready-made templates available to batch process pictures.
In fact, there are templates (on the CD and on the Internet) to do many other common tasks, though many of the best are password-protected shareware. There are enough freeware ones, however, and a fair amount of help on the Internet to get you started making your own. The beauty of templates is that you can not only use them, you can examine the inner workings, see how things are done, and copy them into your own “solutions” if you want.
Another feature for you info-junkies, FileMaker has a massive text field capacity of 64,000 characters. You can organize those thousands of scattered bits of knowledge so that you can actually find things. There are also excellent free converters available that can convert any e-mailer or Eudora mailbox into tab-delineated text, which can then be opened as a ready-made database. It’s the ultimate way to organize e-mail and mailing lists.
FileMaker Pro isn’t cheap; but if there is a student in the family, or if you own a qualifying competitive product (e.g., MS Office, Word, Excel, even ClarisWorks), you can get it for under $100. In any case, if you need it for business or serious inventory, I think you’ll find it’s easy enough to learn and well worth the money.
As a last note, let me just say that even if you don’t need and/or can’t afford FileMaker, you should at least check out the database in ClarisWorks. For simple tasks, it can’t be beat.
Note: Version 4, released by the time you read this, adds several features, including; support for JPEG and GIF, Web publishing, increased AppleScript capabilities, and several other enhancements. FileMaker is cross-platform, except for such things as AppleScript.
MacMice Rating: 3.5
Fenton Jones is a FileMaker database designer and consultant, based in San Diego, CA. FileMaker is a cross-platform rapid-development tool for affordable relational databases. If you have need of a FileMaker Pro expert, please be sure to visit his home page at http://www.fentonjones.com