Databases are to be found behind the majority of applications, providing the technology to capture, store, manipulate and regurgitate data as and when required. Database packages, however, can be complex and difficult to master, something FileMaker attempts to address with a user-friendly wrapper around its FileMaker Pro package, designed to make this very competent database solution accessible to users of all levels.

What is it and who is it for?

Based on software from a company called Claris (once part of Apple), FileMaker Pro 11 is a relational database package designed, originally, to run on Apple Macs. Still very popular on the Mac platform a Windows version is now also available, with a common graphical interface to simplify the task of defining, creating and using databases to support a variety of tasks and applications.

Now in its eleventh generation, cross-platform compatibility remains a key selling point, with FileMaker databases on a Mac accessible by Windows users and vice versa. Ease of use is another key feature, with over 30 built-in templates to help create databases for a variety of uses. Everything from simple to-do lists, inventory and filing tools to invoicing, time billing and records management.

No prior knowledge of databases or how they work is required—at least to begin with—making FileMaker popular with both home users and small businesses. Higher up the scale, however, it can be used to build more complex applications, with tools to create databases that can be shared over the LAN or the Web.

So-called Instant Web publishing is another key feature, while apps to access FileMaker databases from the Apple iPhone and iPad (FileMaker Go) can also be purchased.

As well as the standalone desktop program, a server implementation of FileMaker is available, to better support and manage databases in larger organisations, along with versions that come with bundled developer tools. SQL integration comes as standard and at the high end, the product is marketed as an alternative to SQL database platforms such as Microsoft’s SQL Server, Oracle and MySQL.

Pricing & setup

The desktop version of the latest FileMaker Pro 11 product retails at £219 (ex. VAT) for both Apple Mac and Windows platforms. Macs can have either PowerPC or Intel processors and require OS X 10.5.7 or later, while the Windows version can be deployed on Windows XP (SP3 required), Vista (SP2) or Windows 7.

FileMaker Pro 11 Advanced (£329 ex. VAT) is the developer implementation, similarly, supported on both Mac and Windows, the Advanced version bundling a suite of extra development and customisation tools on top of the core FileMaker Pro product.

Setup takes just a few minutes, thanks to FileMaker installing like any other desktop application on host Mac or Windows PCs. FileMaker databases can also be shared peer-to-peer over a network with support for up to nine simultaneous client connections, each of which requires a licensed copy of the software. Up to five concurrent users can also be supported when publishing databases on the Web, with no need for FileMaker on the client PC, just a browser with JavaScript support.

The server implementation—FileMaker Server (£699 ex. VAT)—allows up to 250 users to share databases, at the same time adding tools to manage databases, take backups and so on. Additionally there’s a File Maker Server Advanced implementation (£2,199 ex. VAT) which imposes no limit on the number of concurrent users supported.

Does it do it well?

We found FileMaker Pro very easy to learn, although as soon as you stray outside the built-in templates and start to build databases of your own things do start to get more complicated. The interface is easy to master, but it’s not for beginners and we’d recommend reading the documentation and following the tutorials provided. Training courses can also be bought and are worth looking into, especially, by customers looking to use using FileMaker to develop their own applications.

One of FileMaker’s strengths is its ability to import Excel spreadsheets, simply by dragging into the FileMaker app. More than that, a new recurring import tool in FileMaker Pro 11 now makes it possible to automatically update imported spreadsheet data every time the associated database is opened. New quick reports in spreadsheet-like format have also been added plus long awaited tools to create charts and graphs from the data held in a FileMaker database.

Often viewed as an Access alternative, FileMaker wins out in that it’s easier to learn with a more intuitive graphical interface plus, for new users, bundled templates to enable databases to be created without having to dig too deep into the underlying technology. Point and click scripting also helps out when it comes to development with the ability to support Windows and Mac clients another plus.

FileMaker databases can also be much larger than with Access (up to 8TB). Likewise when it comes to sharing, the FileMaker product is much more scalable, with the Server version able to use the same databases as the desktop application whereas Access users have to switch to SQL Server, with associated cost and compatibility implications.

Where does it disappoint?

As with a lot of products sold on their ease of use, FileMaker can only go so far down the route of making database development fool proof. The more you want to get out of the product the harder it becomes and the more technical expertise and experience will be required. In its favour, FileMaker goes a long way to making life as easy as possible and is certainly no worse in this respect than many other development tools, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

The only other disappointment is with what’s in FileMaker Pro 11 compared to the previous release. New features like charting and recurring imports are welcome additions, but may not be enough to justify paying to upgrade if you’re already using the product (from £131 ex. VAT to upgrade from FileMaker Pro 9 or 10).

Would we recommend it?

As an application development tool FileMaker Pro 11 has a lot going for it, with the principal market small businesses looking for a simple to use tool to develop their own in-house applications. Those with little in-house expertise will find it much easier than alternatives such as Access, while with its ability to scale and add extra developer tools it’s also worth looking at for larger projects. Lastly it’s worth noting the availability of off-the-shelf commercial applications developed using FileMaker, together with numerous plug-ins to work with the package and a ready supply of FileMaker professionals to help make it work. [8.5]