The first personal computers were 8-bit machines, running an Intel 8080 chip at 2MHz. The state of the art was an S-100 motherboard. If you could afford it, you had 64KB of RAM to work with. If you could afford it, you had a floppy disk drive that could hold 90KB of data on a disk. If you could afford it, you bought a clock card. If you could afford it, you bought a card with a parallel port for a printer—if you could afford a printer. By the time you added a video monitor and keyboard, you were probably spending as much as $3,000.
In those days, you didn’t have a lot of choices for software. You had WordStar for word processing, dBase II for programming your own databases, and eventually you also had Lotus 1-2-3, a spreadsheet.
At the time, it seemed as if those were the three legs of the productivity tripod. If you bought a computer for business, you needed to be able to write letters and reports, you needed to do your bookkeeping, and you needed to keep track of your contacts and your inventories. While you could go to work immediately with your word processor and your spreadsheet, your database software required you to spend some time designing and creating your own specific applications. Most people didn’t want to do that; they didn’t want to learn programming, they just wanted to be able to manage their data and share it with others.
Today, 35 years later, you still need a word-processing program and you still need a spreadsheet, but specific-function database programs have replaced the need for a roll-your-own system. Just about every social network includes contact management. There’s free software for cataloging and playing your music and video files. There are plenty of free services for cataloging your photos, both on your hard drive and online. You can even manage your to-do-list and your daily calorie count.
If you need custom databases, there are plenty of those too. You can use Readerware and a barcode scanner for cataloging books, CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays. Other programs keep track of your comics, stamp collection, baseball cards, collectibles, anything that can be counted and categorized. You can use PaperPort to scan and catalog documents; you can use OneNote and Info Select to stash raw notes and outlines.
But despite the great variety of specific-function data diddlers, many users still need to design their own custom databases, not just in business and industry, but for all kinds of special-purpose, one-of-a-kind situations. You could use Microsoft Access, but the last time I looked, the learning curve on that was so prohibitive, I gave up. It’s probably the least-popular product in Microsoft’s Office Suite. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I even saw it discussed in a computer magazine.
A much more useful alternative is FileMaker Pro. Version 12 has just been released in standard, advanced and server editions, and these are significant upgrades to an already impressive product.
Using FileMaker Pro, you can create a database quickly. Just list the names and types of the fields you want, then design the specific layouts you want. You can drag and drop fields, resize them, easily change the way they display data, and even change fonts and colors of the fields and labels. You can add buttons, scripts and event triggers.
FileMaker Pro has always been a database engine with a graphic user interface and enough scriptable functions that it should be considered a specialized programming system. The Advanced version includes a runtime maker so you can turn any database into a standalone application.
You can design customized databases for just about anything you can imagine—either flat-file or relational—tweaking, changing, adding or deleting parts as your needs evolve. Fields can have drop-down boxes with customized value lists, calendars, radio buttons or check boxes. You can also use container fields for storing graphics. Using FileMaker, you can create customized tables and reports with summary totals.
Version 12 has added one-click themes that you can apply to your entire layout, so even if you don’t have great design skills, your database can still have a clean, unified look. Some of the themes are very attractive, and you can tweak them as you go. (On the minus side, you can’t export your own themes yet. They’ve also dropped the ability to emboss buttons or engrave fields. However, if you import an older database, those styles will still show up in the legacy layouts.)
Container fields can now be used to store photos, videos, music, documents, even PDF files. For me, this is a great way to store contracts, book covers, even whole manuscripts, all in one convenient place. Each record could contain the complete history of every book and story in my career. I’m still thinking about how to expand my existing bibliography to make the best use of expanded container files.
I used a previous version of FileMaker Pro to do a complete script breakdown of a 96-page shooting script, and generate not only a complete shooting schedule, but also daily schedules for all actors, sets and special effects. Starting from scratch, it took only a day to enter all the scenes and who was in each one. Once the data was in the database, it took less than an hour to arrange the shooting schedule and generate and print the custom reports.
With FileMaker Pro 12, I could now include the script pages for each scene, the shot-plots, blocking diagrams, photos, drawings, and even video clips—and then use that database as a quick access to all my notes when directing.
In addition to themes, the new release includes charting functions. First you sort and group your data, then click to bring up the chart tools. You can now generate some very attractive graphs that will give you a different view of the information in your database. In the Advanced version, you can now create custom menus and functions, and there’s a script debugger and a data viewer.
Most of those are evolutionary features, adding to the overall usability of the whole package, but there’s a revolutionary feature here too, both surprising and inevitable. FileMaker Pro 12 lets you design hardware-specific front ends for your iPhone and iPad, so you can access your database in real time. Just install FileMaker Go on your device: It’s a free app, downloadable from the App store, and your data will update instantly from desktop to tablet to phone and back again.
To me, FileMaker Go is the most exciting new feature. I used to wish I could carry my database of CDs with me whenever I went to Tower Records, so that I wouldn’t accidentally buy a duplicate of something I already had. But Tower Records is only a memory now, and Amazon is quick to remind me not only what I’ve purchased, but how long ago.
Nevertheless, despite that particular need having evaporated, FileMaker Go is an impressive expansion, and once having seen it in action, it’s the first app that has me seriously considering the purchase of an iPad. FileMaker Go allows you to record video and audio and still photos directly to the database, export data as Excel or PDF files, capture digital signatures, or simply swipe through sets of records.
There are no announced plans to extend this functionality to Android or Windows phones/tablets yet. FileMaker is owned by Apple, of course they’ll want to increase the value of their own hardware first. But having access to your data wherever you go, having it in front of you on a tablet or a smartphone, is such a valuable tool, it’s enough to sell the whole program.
I can see a multitude of uses here, everything from a vendor in a booth at Comic-Con keeping track of tribble sales, to a real estate agent managing her listings, to an auto parts supplier managing his inventory in the warehouse. If you have your own financial database, whether it’s a simple checkbook application or a whole portfolio manager, having easy access to your own detailed information wherever you go could be enormously valuable. Anyone needing portable or onsite access to their data is a potential user.
But there’s a larger point to be made here, one that overshadows the software itself.
This iteration of FileMaker Pro is an excellent example of how software developers need to continually reexamine their product and its place in the market. By expanding the usefulness of the program to include iPhones and iPads, the company is acknowledging how much our evolving technology is changing our relationship with information.
It wasn’t too long ago that apps were little more than single-purpose add-on utilities. Today, they’re the fastest growing segment of the software sector. The downloadable app for portable devices is turning into the primary access point for information, entertainment and communication. It’s going to dominate the future of a lot of software development.
What do you think?
David Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes, including the famous “Star Trek” episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He is also an authority on computer software and programming, and takes a broad view of the evolution of advanced technologies. Readers may remember Gerrold from the Computer Language Magazine forum on CompuServe, where he was a frequent and prolific contributor in the 1990s.