For small workgroups, or mixed PC and Mac offices, FileMaker Pro has dominated the database market for some time. Its ease of use, cross-platform nature and gentle learning curve seem to have put its few rivals out of the running. So a new version would need some seriously useful tools to make upgrading worthwhile.
The list of new features in version 8.5 is short: two script steps, five or so functions, improvements to multilingual sorting, the ability to name specific objects on layouts, an online resource centre and a layout object called Web Viewer. This changes the way most people will look at their FileMaker databases and, more importantly, offers a concrete reason for making the upgrade.
Laying out the options
Web Viewer is a layout control that allows you to view a web page from within your FileMaker layouts. You don't get any obvious controls, but links within the web content behave just as you would expect: it's possible to jump to different sites, download files, submit forms, read PDFs, display image files and so on.
It's clear that the aim of Web Viewer is to give FileMaker users access to internet-based services from within their existing FileMaker solutions. The default options allow you to set up web viewers that will connect to standard web services: Google Maps, MapQuest, Google, FedEx and all the flavours of Wiki you could want.
Each setting provides up to five site-specific options, which can be linked directly to fields or completed by calculation. The FedEx default offers only one choice: a tracking number. Enter a number here and the FedEx site loads straight on to the page, without exiting FileMaker.
To complement Web Viewer, FileMaker has a few behind-the-scenes features. There's a script step that allows developers to interact with web viewers in simple ways, while 'GetAsURLEncoded' makes it easier to create web-compatible links from text field calculations.
One minor annoyance is the lack of accessibility of content within the web viewer. If you've loaded a web page, textual content is there for the asking. But recording visual content is down to you saving a page with an oversized web viewer as a PDF, then reimporting it into FileMaker Pro.
Web Viewer and these associated functions and script steps offer an entirely new jumping-off point for FileMaker. Anything you can view in a browser can be viewed in a web viewer and, provided you're prepared to massage the text, you can automatically pull data off the web and use it directly within your FileMaker layout.
It's possible to create HTML files on the fly, then preview the results within the FileMaker layout. Expect graphs and beautifully formatted tables to start making appearances in a FileMaker database near you.