FileMaker 6 Extends Reach, Ease of Use

Affordable FileMaker database is improved with integrated-though finicky-XML support.

An IT manager strolling the trenches in search of stealth technology projects will very likely find some FileMaker database installations quietly helping employees do their jobs.

The latest release of FileMaker Inc.s namesake database, FileMaker Pro 6, which started shipping last week, will help those employees do such projects a bit better. Version 6 provides new integrated XML support that makes it easier to share FileMaker data with enterprise applications, as well as ease-of-use enhancements.

The key ease-of-use enhancements are search and replace (instead of just search), database sorts accessible from right-click menus (wed also like to see search filters accessible through the same technique), batch import of files from folders, and digital camera image import. (The last item is a Macintosh-only feature.)

FileMaker Pro 6 costs a reasonable $299 (or $149 for version upgrades) and runs on Windows and Mac OS. Theres also a separately sold, slimmed-down version for Palm OS PDAs (personal digital assistants).

The file format hasnt changed from FileMaker Pro 5.5. In fact, we noticed the default file extension is still .fp5. And FileMaker Pro 6 will work with FileMaker Pro Server 5.5, so there shouldnt be any interoperability problems with an upgrade.

FileMaker is the dominant database player on the Macintosh; on Windows, it has to compete with Microsoft Corp.s Access, which is effectively free to many organizations through Microsoft Office volume purchasing agreements. The same pricing dynamic applies to organizations using higher-end versions of Corel Corp. or IBM office suites, both of which also include databases.

Common windows, such as those for creating databases, defining fields or creating forms, are all substantially simpler in FileMaker than they are in Access, so training users with FileMaker will be less work (and probably generate less database stress) than with Access.

However, Access still provides substantially more database headroom: It includes the option to use a full-featured SQL engine, has much more powerful query building tools, and provides more (and more advanced) form and report elements such as crosstabs and charting, which are both missing from FileMaker.

XML Features Stand Out

Filemaker Pro 6 adds the ability to import and export data in XML format either from a file or directly from a Web page, an option that will be attractive for enterprise integration tasks.

FileMaker also provides built-in support for manipulating XML data during import or export steps using templates written in XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformation).

XSLT provides great flexibility in how XML data can be re-formatted; FileMakers XML developer site at provides a central repository for useful XSLT code, including some creative sample applications. One generates bar charts from FileMaker data.

Unfortunately, this support isnt an optional nice-to-have-when-needed feature because FileMaker requires incoming XML data to be in a very particular XML format.

As a result, XML data import will, in most cases, require users to write XSLT templates. (Data is also exported using this FileMaker format.) XSLT is a complicated specification, and many FileMaker users will find it daunting.

It was a real disappointment not to be able to import plain XML data files and have it just work—something FileMaker does so well in other areas.

FileMaker continues to offer Web publishing unparalleled in its ease of use. We simply clicked one check box to access FileMaker databases from a Web browser using FileMakers built-in Web server.

FileMaker does an impressive job generating HTML versions of its forms—they looked similar to native FileMaker versions and allowed a full range of data entry and search features. On the downside, a long-standing problem where Web user activity changes the current record for a local FileMaker user without warning is still around, meaning that the same database cant be used from the Web and through FileMaker at the same time.

eWeek Labs West Coast Technical Director Timothy Dyck can be reached at