Until we get six to eight months of real-world experience with FileMaker Pro 9.0, it may not be possible to assess this new feature. A FileMaker developerwho's also experienced with SQL told us that FileMaker Pro 9.0 isn't quite ready to deliver the performance of a Porsche with the gas mileage of a Prius. But wouldn't it be nice if it could?
One thing we're sure of: SQL-connectivity is going to sell a lot of copies of FileMaker Pro 9.0 to network admins and managers who sometimes stayed away from FileMaker in the past because it couldn't talk very well to the SQL database that was the heart of their company's data management system. Now it can. In fact, FileMaker Pro 9.0 can now carry on a conversation with that database almost like a native speaker.
And what if you couldn't care less about SQL? The do-it-yourself users and small workgroup users who are the majority of FileMaker's market, will be relieved to know that you still do not have to use SQL. If you turned to FileMaker in the first place because it wasn't SQL, well, it still isn't.
More (and better) connectivity
There are a couple other deep changes in FileMaker 9 that will affect a lot of FileMaker's existing users. There is a new version of FileMaker Server, the software that lets you share your FileMaker databases on a LAN or WAN. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the installation and set-up process has been redesigned completely. A process that used to make even experienced network admins break out in an anxious sweat has been improved so much that you can pretty reliably hope to get the job done in under 20 minutes.
The Web-support provided by FileMaker Server Advanced now includes the ability to generate an entire PHP-driven website automatically from your FileMaker database. We haven't fully tested this feature yet, but it looks very promising.
Finally, while FileMaker Server and Server Advanced have become much easier to install and administer, the price has not dropped, so if you only need half a dozen users to connect to your database, you may be happy to know that the number of peer-to-peer connections allowed by FileMaker Pro 9.0 has risen from four to nine. FileMaker Server is the preferred way to go even for two or three users, but peer-to-peer sharing works, and if you're on a very tight budget, it can be a life saver.
What else is new
Finally, let's look at the surface, the improvements that you can start using the minute you install FileMaker Pro 9.0. Our favourite enhancement is the new Append to PDF command, available both in the File menu and as a script step. Save as PDF has been around since FileMaker 7.0, but the new Append command makes it possible to create a single PDF that uses several different layouts, or to append July results to a report that currently goes only through June. Not sexy, but very useful.
FileMaker Pro 9.0 also offers a number of nice enhancements for layout designers. Conditional formatting can now be applied directly to a field object on a layout. So for example you can easily highlight invalid entries or negative amounts.
It's also possible now to configure layout objects so that they resize automatically on screen. Serious script writers will be grateful that, in FileMaker Pro 9.0, it is finally possible to group related scripts together inside organisational folders. There are many other smaller changes, including a new startup screen, better online help while you work, live updating, and more.
Let's close with a bit of trivia: FileMaker Pro 9.0 is the first odd-numbered release in the product's nearly 20-year history that does not introduce a new file structure. FileMaker's press materials understandably don't put this fact right at the top of the features to get excited about in FileMaker Pro 9.0, but after the revolutionary upheaval that accompanied the release of FileMaker 7.0 a few years ago, it's reassuring to know that upgrading to FileMaker Pro 9.0 is not going to break anything.
In our testing, all our existing FileMaker 7.0, 8.0 and 8.5 databases opened up and ran in FileMaker Pro 9.0 without a single hitch. Most of the FileMaker 9-specific features even break fairly gracefully when you open a database that uses them in an older copy of FileMaker. For example, layout objects set to resize in FileMaker Pro 9.0 simply don't in FileMaker 8.5, and script groups created in FileMaker Pro 9.0 simply show up as empty folders in the ScriptMaker in FileMaker 8.5. But everything still works perfectly.