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Filemaker 8.5: small but useful upgrade

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Editor's Blog I’ve just been to the Filemaker Pro 8.5 launch – Filemaker is the desktop database owned by Apple and run as an independent software company. Actually, it'a bit more than just a desktop database, as it also has a server version. It targets SMEs up to about 256 users, but the basic engine was rewritten for Filemaker v7, so it is now pretty robust, within its limits.

The main new feature is a nifty live internet link. In essence, you put a URL in a field in a database form and it gets updated in real time from the Internet site. Anything your default browser (Internet Explorer on Windows) can cope with is supported – so you can look up a music list and play music if you like.

Filemaker has rather a cool customer base already – I was rather taken with that oxymoron, an ethical publishing house (no, seriously, I was impressed, from the outside anyway): Alistair Sawday Publishing.

Russell Atkinson, from this paragon, sums up what Filemaker 8.5 offers when he says, ”Content from our range of travel publications is managed in Filemaker and from there it finds its way online. Now we’ll be able to integrate this process in both directions – publishing our data to the web and seeing it alive and online directly within Filemaker. Filemaker’s starting to encompass many of the tools we use outside it,” he continues, “before long we won’t need much more than an OS and a copy of Filemaker to work with!”

By all accounts, then, Filemaker is a nice, usable database system – within its limits. It scales up well, as long as you’re not thinking in terms of a few hundred thousand concurrent users of terabytes of data. But, of course, the free version of DB2, say, really does scale up to those levels, potentially anyway – and DB2 needn’t be as frightening as many see it, although to design a very large database system does need a database expert rather than a power user…

So, why should you buy Filemaker, instead of, perhaps:

Technically, there no strong reason, as far as I can see, unless you really like putting URLs into database fields (and please don't be seduced by Filemaker's "cross platform" claims, unless the only platforms you're interested in are Windows and the Mac). A database designed from the outset to cope with the largest multiuser networked systems, such as DB2, would probably deliver a more robust/resilient solution even writ small - admittedly this may be a moot point has few SMEs would push Filemaker hard enough to notice this.

Filemaker’s unique selling point has to be the quality of its developer community, for the sort of SME that would rather think about its business than database technologies. In a world where many SMEs find it hard to find “professional” IT people they feel comfortable with (and with references they can validate in a meaningful way), the “comfort factor” associated with Filemaker developers must be welcome.

Of course, the other databases I’ve mentioned have active developer communities too, often equally SME friendly. Perhaps it’s a matter of which developer you find first, probably through personal recommendation.

But, as a vendor business model, supporting an active developer community that does your selling for you is a good idea – after all, it’s how Microsoft first started getting itself taken seriously.

It’s certainly something that developers should consider being part of. Their potential customers, I suspect, don’t care about whether the automated business service they get is built on a database or built on green cheese. They want a development service, from a developer that they feel able to trust, and who sticks around to fix any problems.

If an SME falls out with “its” developer, someone else from an actively working community can take over, quickly and efficiently. It’s all rather similar to the old days with IBM – you didn’t begrudge the millions mainframe software cost because you weren’t really buying software, you were buying a business automation service (although it probably wasn’t put like that) and the knowledge that if anything broke, an IBM SE would appear magically and fix it. Not a bad model as long as what you’re buying is fit for your particular purposes - although SMEs certainly do care about the bottom-line cost as well… ®

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