I’ve always thought of FileMaker as “databases for the rest of us” – the software is easy to understand for even novice users, it has an immense focus on visual design that allows users to create impressive looking solutions quickly and easily, and it packs quite a bit of power. All of those traits get a boost in FileMaker 12, which was released this morning.
My first impression on using FileMaker 12 is that the company took all the things I’ve always like about FileMaker Pro and Server and turned them up to 11 – particularly when it comes to making mobile solutions.
FileMaker is a wholly owned subsidiary of Apple and that relationship really comes through in this release. In fact, as I’ve used FileMaker Pro 12, I’ve found myself thinking of it as a natural extension of Apple’s iWork, iBooks Author, and the sadly now-defunct iWeb. The use of inspector pallets, the alignment features for creating layouts, and the inclusion of really polished and professional looking themes all speak the same visual and user interface language as the major Apple apps.
Let’s start with the FileMaker Pro 12 interface. One of the features that I’ve always loved about FileMaker was that, while it has immense scalability and you can configure a variety of field types and relationships between multiple databases, the process of setting up the backend functionality has always been extremely easy to understand. If you’re someone who visualizes data as sets of values and tables, you can build a database around those more abstract and data-oriented concepts and then add a user interface onto it. If you’re someone who thinks more visually, however, you can start from a user interface design perspective and create the various layouts that users will see and then build out the the data and relationships to match the layout. That option to work with whatever your most natural process happens to be is something that few database solutions can come close to matching.
The visual focus is definitely clear in FileMaker 12 and its new theme support. There are a over three dozen themes available to make it easy to present a consistent look for each layout or form be it on a Mac or PC screen or an iPhone or iPad. The themes offer a consistent color scheme, user interface elements, and font selection. Most impressively, changing a theme is insanely simple and can be done even with users accessing the database in question. The addition of interface options that mimic iOS (including button and field styles) as well as those that offer great 3D and gradient features may seem trivial, but they truly take FileMaker Pro to another level – databases that look functional but uninspiring and drab are easily transformed to look like high-end Mac/Windows applications or custom iOS apps in a matter of seconds.
Speaking of iOS apps, one of the big features in this release is the rebranding of the FileMaker iOS client, which is now referred to as FileMaker Go and which is now a free App Store download. As I mentioned, there are several themes that include layouts optimized to the screen of the iPhone (and iPod touch) and the iPad. These layouts feature oversized rounded buttons designed for touch-oriented interaction. They also make it easy to include other iOS-like elements including boxes of text bordered using the same rounded rectangles that are common in iOS apps – most notably in the Settings app.
When you design layouts for FileMaker Go, you have the option of a new stencil feature that blocks out the exact dimensions of the iPhone or iPad screen. This makes it easy to ensure your app displays properly and it makes it easy to ensure you’re using all the screen real estate to its maximum advantage – including the negative space been interface elements. Equally impressive is the fact that FileMaker Go now allows you to access on-device features like the built-in camera (or camera roll) and location services.
FileMaker also upped the ante on its container fields. Container fields can contain (no pun intended) virtually any type of file. For multimedia files, the contents can be displayed directly in a layout even if the files aren’t stored in the database itself. Likewise, FileMaker can organize the items in container fields for you if you choose and it can securely encrypt files if needed.
When used with FileMaker Server, audio and video files in a container field can be streamed to users without waiting for the entire file to download. This can be particularly helpful for mobile devices. FileMaker Server also includes a revamped web publishing engine for databases that you want to make available via a web interface. FileMaker Server is also designed to support higher traffic loads, particularly when installed as a 64-bit application.
One important note for businesses upgrading to any of the FileMaker 12 product line – this edition uses a new file format. You can upgrade existing databases but once you do, you won’t be able to use them with earlier releases. In my experience there weren’t any issues with the upgrade process, but you’ll want to make copies of any files prior to upgrading in case you need to downgrade for any reason in the future.
If you’re new to FileMaker’s products, the company offers a free trial program and you can see FileMaker databases in action on the company’s Flickr page, which include stills and video of FileMaker Pro databases on desktops as well as FileMaker Go databases being used in real-world situations.
Overall, this is a great release and a nice upgrade. The real highlights have to be the focus on making engaging user interface design incredibly simple and the ease of creating iOS-specific layouts with iOS functionality as the clear killer feature. It’s very easy to think of FileMaker Go as a new app platform for iOS – something in between the options of native apps and web apps. If you consider FileMaker Go as an app platform, then it’s arguably the easiest compared to both native and web apps.