Category Archives: FileMaker Discoveries

First FileMaker 9 Review I have Seen

Filemaker Pro 9 Advanced

MacWorld has a short but good review of FileMaker 9 out already. Since I haven’t written my own thoughts yet, I thought it would be helpful to point you to this in the meantime.

Well written. Friendly to FileMaker by someone who seems to know it well. The author, William Porter, is an independent database developer and writer in Dallas. William is the founder of Polytrope LLC and is a classics scholar with a penchant for FileMaker. Sounds like a neat guy. I hope we can meet up at the Developer’s Conference this year.

Some Highlights:

FileMaker 9 can, by itself, serve to up to 9 FileMaker clients (without using FileMaker Server). The previous limit was 5. It used to be 10 before FileMaker 7. That’s a nice thing when a client is trying to get started and wants to cut some corners temporarily to get in the game.

There’s a cool PHP Site Assistant feature now. FileMaker 9 still has instant web publishing and custom web publishing but now FileMaker Server 9 gives us an intermediate option – a PHP site creation tool that is extendable. Instant Web Publishing is fantastic as far as it goes, but it has a fairly low ceiling. If you need something else, you are stuck. But, the easy PHP stuff here can be programmed additionally to handle extras and exceptional situations. I will be brushing up on my PHP pronto because of this tool that gives you a jump start.

FileMaker Server 9 and Server 9 Advanced are much easier to install. I rarely install FileMaker Server, but I do know my customers have frequently gotten stuck trying to get it up and running. I always attributed it to short attention spans and unwillingness to crack up the documentation, but, the new versions apparently can be installed in around 20 minutes, William, says.

FileMaker 9 should in almost all cases be compatible with FileMaker 7, 8 and 8.5 databases. William says: “it’s reassuring to know that upgrading to FileMaker 9 is not going to break anything”. This means you can operate with some users on one version and some on another but remember that if a feature is Filemaker 9-specific, it won’t work in earlier versions. That’s the reason to consider a maintenance contract so you can just put a maintenance payment into your annual software budget to keep your software current.

You can now easily create interactions between FileMaker databases and the big iron SQL databases. FileMaker 9 can talk to MySQL, MS SQL and Oracle databases. That covers most of what’s out there. This will be helpful when you want to connect to web-based databases which are often MySQL or corporate databases that typically use Oracle or MS SQL.

You can combine filemaker reports into one PDF. This is practically my favorite new feature. Now I can create a single invoice pdf that actually involves three different pieces such as a cover page, a middle detail piece and terms. Very handy. Previously, you had to resort to buying and integrating an external plug-in to get this functionality.

William promises a more extensive review for MacWorld.com. This initial review was technically called a “first look”.

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Relationship Graph Post-it Notes Pay Off

Sm8 Relationships Graph 480-1

It took me a while, but now I am a believer. I just posted 2 notes into the relationships graph for Studio Manager 8. One note is a legend that shows what all my abbreviations mean and the other note is a general guide to how I have set-up and organized the relationships graph. I now see that these two notes should be a standard practice for any FileMaker database these days. Nice.

You can pick your colors for the post-its from the color wheel, so have at it!

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I Love FileMaker 8.5 Tab Controls

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Yes. I know Tab Controls were released in FileMaker 8. But, without a Go to Object command and other niceties like the GetLayoutObjectAttribute function, they weren’t ready to replace all tabs all the time.

Many of you might still cling to your homemade tabs. Not me. I’ve committed 100% to tab controls to handle all (well almost all) of my tabbing needs.

You can make fancy fake tabs and use any graphics you want for the tabs. But that’s so FileMaker 7 of you. The problem is fake tabs are not end-user friendly. They aren’t even developer friendly in my opinion.

Instead, use tab controls. They can look pretty boring by default. But take away some of the old-fashioned styling and they become elegant. Native vs. bolted on. Native looks better my friends. Since most of my customers are designers, I pay close attention to ways to make my UI look better.

Tab controls can be used to simplify. Compare the default User tab above to the Admin tab below. Users, even Admin people, don’t need to see all the information all the time (Keep in mind that there are other fields on the screen. The user is just not being bothered with all the information as he or she uses the database).

Admin_tab

Tab controls are revolutionary because they let our users customize their own interface. That’s heresy you say. That breaks the rules of keeping the user in his place. Yes. And that’s the wave of the future that you might want to embrace. FileMaker is the database of choice because it empowers the user.

You know that thing where everything isn’t top down. That user who is on the front lines where all the new information is. That’s the user who knows what he or she needs.

I go on about tab controls as they pertain to my Studio Manager product over on Studio Manager Bulletin. The treatment there is not very technical but is very enthusiastic. I’m thrilled to be using tab controls instead of fake tabs in my product.

One of the main features of Studio Manager is that it maximizes user customizability. Studio Manager is not a black box. Not to developers and not to users. Deal with it.

Useful FileMaker Blog for You to Check Out

Mikhail

I discovered a new FileMaker blog today that looks good. I’ll probably have some more soon as I search for what’s available these days. This FileMaker blog is called Bits and Pieces and it is written by Mikhail Edoshin who has been a FileMaker developer for about 8 years. The photo here is of Mr. Edoshin.

At first glance, Mikhail’s blog seems to mainly have explanatory posts about various FileMaker calculations. But, there are some longer articles if you go back a little ways. The post I found most useful was called FileMaker field naming conventions written on November 6, 2005. Mikhail says that he’s tried very complex naming schemes in the past but has decided that simple, natural-sounding field names like First Name are better than the coded ones. He explains why.

A couple other posts I thought looked especially interesting were Merge Expressions and Custom functions to simplify reading the current state of modifier keys.

All of this content is valuable and should be on your required reading list if you are a FileMaker developer or intermediate to advanced user. The value a developer like Mikhail can add is all the real-world, in the field detail and context that isn’t provided in the online help or user manual.

Instead of merely responding to a filemaker forum question, a FileMaker blogger is choosing among his wide experience and picking something he thinks is worth sharing with a wider audience. Generally speaking, you can expect the shared item will have value to the community whereas a forum question might apply to only a few other FileMaker folks.

These experience-based reports and explanatory articles are really valuable. At minimum, they (1) give you a different slant on something you’ve read before, (2) remind or introduce you to functions and aspects of FileMaker development that you may not have found or thought about on your own and (3) provide extra commentary based on road-testing in the real world.

Blogs can add a lot to the FileMaker community. And some FileMaker developers, who may have previously relied on static web pages are, like Mikhail, have started blogging. Blogs, comprised of chronological posts, are convenient to create and operate, tell users what is most current, have great automatic archiving features and are linkable by post rather than whole web page.

A blog is much easier to maintain, gives you more Google juice due to the metadata it provides automatically and offers the ability for users to interact via comments. While providing a great service, Mr. Edoshin also introduces himself to colleagues and prospective clients. Speaking for myself, blogging is a great way to contribute and participate in the FileMaker community and incidentally gets the word out about you and your FileMaker business.

Prior to establishing Bits and Pieces in September, Mikhail created a website in 2000 that was devoted to filemaker. Some of that material may be migrated over to the blog over time but I wasn’t clear that any has been migrated so far. If you would like to take a look a Mikhail’s previous contributions about FileMaker, check out his Onega Software: FileMaker from the other side website.

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Address Clairvoyance and List Controls in FileMaker 8

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Even though I knew in theory that clairvoyance and value list controls in FileMaker 8 were cool, it wasn’t until I started tinkering with my address entry fields in Studio Manager that I found out how cool.

The thing about address fields is that everyone has them. Which of those fields can benefit from clairvoyance and list controls? I experimented with it and submitted my findings on my Studio Manager Bulletin blog. These checkbox features are just the kind of thing my clients can implement for themselves.

I’m sure you couldn’t justify putting a value list on the zip code field in a lot of situations. But in a place where most business comes from just a few zip codes like in a major city, this might have some value.

By the way, the arrows and clairvoyance disappear seamlessly when you access the file using FileMaker 7. These 2 features are 7-Safe.

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FileMaker 8 Field Control Setup Bliss

Field Control Setup

I remember one day long ago when it became possible to respecify a field by double-clicking on it. Can’t remember the version but whenever that happened it sure helped. I could double-click to find out what field I was on and read the full field name and I could option-drag a field to get a duplicate and then redefine it.

Well, life has taken another leap forward for us long-toiling FileMaker developers. FileMaker 8 gives you a lot more than specify field when you double-click a field now. You get the entire Field Format dialog too. It came in the nick of time because some other OSX keyboard shortcut had recently stolen my Cmd-Option-F for Field Format and I haven’t sussed it out yet. But now I don’t have to. Double-click! What a concept?

You’ll notice in my screen shot two other cool features. These both only work in 8, but at least you’ll be able to use them for your own databases immediately.

Auto-complete using value list. Yay! Clairvoyance like Quicken! This works lightning fast and works best for value lists that are long such as industry, category, specialty, title, model. It’s implemented to perfection. Fixes the capitalization for you too. Just turn it on by clicking the checkbox for any field that has a value list. This will be a selling point that might help convince your customers to upgrade.

Include arrow to show and hide list. I’m just getting used to this one so don’t know if I understand it’s full value yet. But for a start, you can choose to put a visual cue (an arrow we are used to in *real* applications) on pop-down menus. You give the user the option to use the pop-down or not. It looks and feels 10x better than most of the work around graphics we’ve used in the past to get this effect.

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FileMaker 8: Rearranging Tabs At Will

Entry Screen With Tabs 470

Once you have FileMaker Pro 8 or 8 Advanced, it won’t take you long to create a tab control to stash away extra information for a record. Creating a control with several tabs takes all of about 30 seconds. The instant gratification quotient is off the charts.

But my favorite part about the tab control is that once you’ve created the tabs and put fields and objects onto them, you can change your mind and instantly rearrange the tabs to an order that suits you or your client by dragging the tab labels up or down in the list. You can experiment with the order without penalty.

The reason this works so well, is that all the fields and objects put onto a tab panel automatically attach themselves to the panel. This gives you the ability to drag the whole tab control around on your layout and also lets you rearrange tab panels without having to take extra time moving the contents of those panels!

I decided to experiment with 8 using my own FileMaker system that runs my business. I took a layout that was just too darned big and decided to use tabs to allow me to take things off the layout and keep them somewhere very handy.

Above is an example which is still in progress as far as the redesign of the layout goes. Now that I have all this room, I want to re-think the layout and make it more attractive. I’m very much experimenting, but here I’ve got one big tab area and a smaller one for little stuff.

The big tab area gives me room for wide portals for things like invoices. It also gives me room for notes and big graphics like the maps I use.

Map Tab-470Px

Besides the shear speed of doing nice-looking tabs in your designs, another thing I like is the speed of switching between tabs. These things fly. There’s minimal overhead.

Now my only problem is deciding when to use a tab control and where to actually create layouts. FileMaker says use them to expand what you can put on a single layout. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Adventures in Data Protection with FileMaker 7

Field_is_Locked_Msg.png

One of my clients just called today about a simple error that caused a lot of upset. Someone had accidentally erased the first and last name out of an employee’s record. My client thought that the employee’s data had disappeared completely because a Find didn’t turn up the employee anymore.

The erasure might have occurred when a user thought they were in Find mode and overwrote the name and then realized they were in Browse mode and erased their mistake not quite putting it together that they needed to retype the original name which they may have not remembered.

At least that is how we guessed the problem occurred. In FileMaker 6 and earlier, you needed to either leave data editable so that Finds could be done on those fields, or you needed to create a calculated field for each of the fields and display the data with the calculations except on a protected layout where data entry could actually occur.

There’s still an issue here, but we now have a new and very handy tool in our toolbox. The Field Behavior command. We can now turn off the ability to Browse in a field while allowing the ability to Find. All those layouts where data entry is not needed should have the fields set with the “Allow field to be edited in Browse mode” unchecked. When you do that, the user can’t click into that field in Browse mode anymore.

The issue I have is that I don’t want to have to lock all fields on non-data entry layouts or create special data entry layouts that are unlocked to avoid this problem. It seems like a lot of extra work. Probably the best bet is to reserve this extra work for situations where there are many inexperienced users using a particular screen and likely to use that screen to do finds as well as data entry. In those cases, you could lock the user out of data entry and display a custom message directing them to another screen for data entry only.

Here’s what I tried: In Layout mode, I selected the approximately 25 fields that I wanted to lock and set the field behavior to not allow modification in browse mode. Then I made all those same fields into a single button by choosing “Button…” from the Format menu. I then created a script with one step: Show Custom Dialog and worked a bit on wording. Then I tried it in browse mode. When I clicked in any of the protected fields, they all highlighted at once and the message appeared. Very impressive.

In Find mode, the button effect was non-existent and the Find worked like usual. Just what I wanted. By accident, I discovered the drawback of the button with the custom message when I tried to move one of the fields on the layout. I was told that the field was part of a button and couldn’t be moved without removing the button. Assigning a button to a set of fields like this isn’t very flexible. You’ll probably want to avoid this technique with a layout that you expect to modify fairly frequently.

1 Drawback to the Single File Approach

The single file approach in FileMaker 7 is very advantageous in many ways. Being able to control your security settings in one place is incredibly convenient. However, there seems to be one drawback. It’s harder to segment out high-level security access to a particular part of your solution when it is all in one file.

Sure you can control layout and field access. But what about when you want to give someone the ability to create a new table? You have to somehow give them the ability to use the Define Database area. And that is an all or nothing proposition as far as I can tell. Either someone gets to be able to change fields throughout the file or not at all.

I’m hoping I’m wrong about this and will definitely post a correction if I find out otherwise. Corrections, anyone? I would like for there to be some gradations of access in field definitions. For example, you can let people have more privileges on new layouts. Could you do that for new tables, without giving away the store and allowing people to change existing database fields and relationships?

One solution is to allow the user in question to create the table as a separate file. Then, if desired the database administrator, could perhaps use FMrobot to bring the fields inside the big DB walls. The problem with this is that FMrobot only works on the fields and can’t bring in layouts and scripts. And it is unlikely that there won’t be need for some field definition and relationship changes after the initial try.

In a big, complex one-file database, you may just have to work around this limitation. There is probably a lot to be said for having a two-step process with end-user additions to the database.

You can give a user access to the Define Database area without them having Full Access. You do this by creating a script that uses the Open Define Database script step and make sure the script executes with Full Access. Because you have this option, you can use scripting controls to keep the lid on the database and retain control over management of Accounts and Privileges.