An introduction to FileMaker Pro. Is it for you?
Welcome. This is the first of a series of articles on the database application FileMaker Pro. The series will be like tutorials, with emphasis on tips and tricks not necessarily found in the manuals.
OK, the first question is, “What is a database?” It’s a dynamic organization of information. It stores the data in well designed layouts, and is capable of finding and arranging it according to the user’s needs. It is similar to a spreadsheet, such as Excel or ClarisWorks, but has more freedom of arranging layouts. Behind the scenes there is a powerful scripting language, like macros, but more flexible and much easier to learn.
There are also structural differences between databases and spreadsheets. Generally databases are disk-based and spreadsheets are RAM-based. Changes are saved to disk automatically. The data is only loaded into RAM as needed, so the files can be very big without taxing the computer. This also allows them to be multi-user; several people, on networked computers, can enter data into the same file (but not the same record) simultaneously.
Spreadsheets are better for some tasks, such as massive number crunching, when you want to display all the figures all the time, or for charting. But databases are better for most other organizational tasks.
If you use Quicken, or an address book application, then you are already a database user. The beauty of using FileMaker is that it allows you, the end user, to create and modify all aspects of the database to suit your needs. There is a learning curve, but it’s not too steep; and, compared to other database applications, it’s a walk in the park.
If you use ClarisWorks, you will already be familiar with most of the layout tools; the database module in ClarisWorks is a stripped-down version of FileMaker. The full version, however, is easier to use, and so far beyond ClarisWorks that there is little comparison in functionality.
FileMaker is fairly versatile. It can handle many kinds and quantities of data. On the text side, it can handle 65,000 characters per field, which is about 20 pages; so you could store entire articles. The version I’m using, 3.05, can handle PICT and JIFF graphics in “container” fields. The newest version, 4.0, accepts JPEG and GIF, allowing you to use FileMaker as a graphics catalog. It can also store and play movies and sounds.
So, who should buy FileMaker Pro, at a cost of $200? ($100 for students or competitive upgrade) I would say there are three requirements:
1. You have the money.
2. You’ve got the time and inclination to learn a powerful data processing application.
3. You have some information that needs organizing, and would like to customize the way it is done. (There are several cheaper stand-alone shareware database programs that can organize data, but none are totally customizable.)
For those few who are still with me, let me add that help is available (other than the manual, which is good, but very thin considering the complexity of the application). There are many Web sites dedicated to FileMaker, and on these sites are quantities of tips and templates. These templates are small FileMaker files that some kind souls have created to illustrate particular techniques. There are also other useful “solutions” (a group of related database files). These range from simple freeware examples, such as those tracking personal possessions or collections, to complex shareware templates capable of running a small business, all ready-made and quite inexpensive.
A bunch of very simple, free templates come on the FileMaker Pro CD, or are available at the FileMaker, Inc. Web site. The URL is: http://www.filemaker.com
. You can also download a demo version of FileMaker Pro. It’s limited to 50 records, has some exporting and printing restrictions, but is otherwise full-featured. It’s a reasonably-sized application. It does, however, install a “Claris” folder in the System Folder, unless you already have ClarisWorks. The version 4 demo also installs the Microsoft OLE extension.
Let me say in closing that FileMaker is the first application that has allowed me to feel that I’d overcome the main shortcoming of the computer–that there is only one small screen, with a simple hierarchal system of folders and files. To organize more complex information, such as that of a small business, required keeping many separate spreadsheet and word processing files, adding confusion and making overall reporting difficult. With a database, it can all be kept in one place, in any amount of detail, reports can be easily done, displays can be laid out however you want, and it’s still easy to use. It does, however, take longer to set up, unless you buy a ready-made solution.
For those of us who want to, or must do that kind of craziness, I’ll be back next month with some tips on getting started.
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