Start with the fact that I don't qualify by any standard as a Filemaker programmer or developer. Add to that the information that I have dubbed around in database creation and modification since going all-Mac and starting to work in AppleWorks circa 1998 (recently migrated to Word, since AW reached EOL), and have used various elementary AW databases (a few of which I created) and FMPro freeware solutions (a few of which I tweaked) going back to FileMaker Pro 5. Throw in the news that over the past two years I have increasingly moved my professional activities as a professional writer and curator into the database environment. Spice this with the generosity of FileMaker Pro in designating me as a reviewer for its last several iterations, and — that's where the story begins.
Some of my favorite features of FileMaker Pro 9 in its latest iteration:
The ease of creating and working within tabbed layouts. This allows larger fields, larger fonts, more open space in a layout. Even if you don't pre-plan it as such, you can turn a solution into a tabbed layout subsequently if the original starts to get cluttered and you need more room for your fields, or if it makes sense to organize your fields and data via specific-purpose layouts.
The simplicity of adding fields for media. In the solution I'll talk about shortly, I created a field/window in which the homepage of my prospect opens automatically, with navigation buttons that let me move around in their site. This enables me to update their latest changes of address, personnel, etc., directly from their online info, without leaving FMPro. I added other fields for images that enable me to store copies of sample covers of issues (most of these prospects are publication) or their institutional logos, as well as portraits of the contact persons themselves (if I can find them online, or have them in my image files).
Humongous storage capacity. I've decided to keep actual copies of all my "inventory" of texts in this solution. Piece of cake to create fields that let me import them in both pdf and rtf formats.
Linking option for documents. You can't open those stored files directly; you have to export them. But I have set up additional fields in which I merely link to a second set, stored outside my solution, so I can open them immediately in their native apps with just a mouseclick.
Copy/paste of functions. FileMaker Pro 9 now allows a remarkable degree of easy transfer of fields, scripts, buttons, and other components and functions from one layout or solution to another. For example, I found an excellent "toggle screen size" script in one freeware solution that, after a bit of study, I've now successfully added to almost every solution I use. It bumps the entire screen and its frame up incrementally (I set it for a 50-percent boost) — much easier on the eyes, since I work on a MacBook Pro with a 15-inch screen. And a small navigation bar I created for the Tracker — nothing fancy, just first record, last record, previous, and next — worked so well that I promptly dropped it into most of the solutions I use, which took all of ten minutes. (I got the navbar idea from Timothy Trimble's FileMaker Pro Design & Scripting for Dummies (Wiley Publishing).
I get to add tooltips. Of course, I don't need them, since I know exactly how this solution works. But I might want to share it with others, who could use a bit of help. And, so long as you don't overdo them, tooltips are . . . cool. Seeing one come up that you put in yourself makes you file like a true FM pro.
Scripting still has its mysteries (Else if?), but I have now created some scripts from scratch and modified others successfully. (Hint: Experimenting on a duplicate until you get it right ensures that you can't mess anything up permanently.) Scripting a sort I'll repeat frequently, a real timesaver, has become child's play. I just run the sort and go to ScriptMaker, where it waits as a default; a few simple steps turn it into a script I can add to my menu.
In general, FileMaker Pro 9 just seems to run faster and more smoothly than its predecessors.
One of the pleasures of working with FileMaker Pro 9 is that it empowers you to improve, fine-tune, customize the solution within you're working immediately, on the fly (assuming that it's open-source). No waiting for somebody else to provide some later release or bug-fix or patch at some indefinite future date, as is the case with virtually every other app I use. Do it now, DIY.
This becomes addictive, which is probably how people turn into FileMaker Pro developers. Even for someone not a perfectionist or stickler for detail, it's always possible to make a solution better: fiddle with the design, fuss with the layout, improve some function, add a new one. Only your own knowhow limits the possibilities.
Another benefit is its enabling of the user to create solutions from scratch, or to revamp existing solutions to suit one's needs. Because Filemaker provides a potload of freeware solutions, you can often find something readymade that will handle some necessary task — or that a modest amount of retooling will make workable. Let me give an example.
I now work on a daily basis with and within several FileMaker Pro solutions, including one for which I bought a $1400 license. It handles contact management, correspondence, invoicing, pitching to prospects, communications, and a raft of other business activities in a full-featured way. It enables much of what I do professionally. I can pay to have it customized further, but that's a pricey proposition, beyond my budget at the moment. Unfortunately, off the rack it has a few serious limitations, among them that it isn't designed either to inventory items of intellectual property or to track the marketing of same to prospective or active clients. It's intended for people who use physical things to make physical things to sell to others.
I don't make things. I don't sell things. I produce IP, whose usages I license. I also generate project proposals for grants and fellowships, and applications for certain kinds of awards and prizes for which I'm eligible. My main FileMaker Pro solution simply has no features to enable tracking any of this, and I don't believe in elaborate workarounds.
For years I've hunted online for something that would serve these needs. A number of submission-tracking software apps for writers, currently available or defunct, went through my bench tests during that time. None of them proved suitable. Either they were PC-only, or they didn't serve all the functions I required and were unmodifiable, or they came from small developers and reached end-of-life. The neatest of these, Manuscript Tracker, a tiny Cocoa-based freeware app, worked just fine — except that it wouldn't allow either importing or exporting of data, a definite no-no from a db standpoint, and its developer has no plans to improve it in the near future. (Mike Blaguszewski offers this at http://quickbrownfox.org/sw/tracker/.) I began to think I'd have to either hire a developer (cash-costly) or put this together myself from scratch (time-costly, presumably steep learning curve, long production period).
In late November of '07 I got so frustrated with not having this at my disposal that I decided to see what I could do on my own. So, on December 1, I clicked through Blaguszewski 's Manuscript Tracker again, to remind myself of what I liked about it and what fields and layouts it included. Then I went browsing in my collection of FileMaker Pro 9 freeware solutions, really just looking for a suitable layout on which to build what I wanted from the ground up. But I also didn't have what FileMaker Pro developers call an ER (event-relationship) diagram for this solution I visualized, and didn't have the skill set to create one. So I had decided to start something I didn't have confidence I could finish.
I'd done this before, looking at various business-related freeware solutions, and found nothing that would do the trick, so I wasn't expecting any discovery. Perhaps that lack of assumptions put me into the mindset that Edward De Bono calls "lateral thinking," an openness to alternative answers to problems. In any event, I came across a FileMaker Pro freeware solution called "Lending Library," and something clicked. What does a library do? It circulates books, of which it may have more than one copy, to borrowers, who keep them for a time and then return them, whereupon they get logged in, returned to the shelves, and then lent again. What do I do? I circulate writings and grant proposals, sometimes in more than one version, log them in when they get returned, send them out again . . .
You get the picture. And so did I. It was a "Eureka!" moment, an instant of thinking like a developer, of recognizing that the infrastructure of this solution revolved around exactly the same kind of event relationships as my desideratum. (It's actually an asset-management question, and "Lending Library" clearly derives from FileMaker Pro freeware asset-management solutions. You can download "Lending Library" at http://solutions.filemaker.com/.)
To shorten what's already a long story, I started modifying "Lending Library" in order to convert it into "IP-Proposal Tracker." For help with this project I used Jonathan Stars's excellent Learn Filemaker Pro 9 (Wordware Publishing) as a reference, along with the previously mentioned Trimble book, plus of course FileMaker Pro's extensive Help advisories, and a good bit of poking around, trial and error, etc.
Today, February 3, two months later, working on this in my spare time, I have a robust stand-alone solution with full FileMaker Pro 9 compatibility that automatically loads the websites of periodicals, book publishers, funding sources, and other contacts, with browsing thereof enabled; that allows me to store my writing within the solution in both pdf and rtf formats, as well as to link to those files and open them in their native apps; that gives me the submission history of anything I log in; and that lets me improve it as I go along.
The original "Lending Library" solution had a few inherent weaknesses (apologies to whoever devised it); for example, its List View for Contacts isn't nearly as good as the comparable view for Assets. So I improved that to handle things to my satisfaction. I tweak this new solution regularly, as I think of new features and functions it can perform for me.
I consider this release 0 of the "IP-Proposal Tracker." There's still work to do. For instance, at the moment it's a stand-alone solution, not connected to any other that I use. With Filemaker the user always has the ability to import and export data, of course. So I can move data into and out of "IP-Proposal Tracker" efficiently, and whatever I enter there or gets generated therein can end up someplace else. Eventually I expect to link the "IP-Proposal Tracker" to other FileMaker Pro solutions I utilize, so that data flows automatically between them.
The biggest reward here, the real surprise, is that someone like me, with no formal training in database construction, a preference for hands-on learning, and a basic let's-see-if-this-works approach could take on a project like this as his first exploration of the capacities of FileMaker Pro 9 Advanced and end up with an extremely sophisticated solution (by my lights, anyhow) that can grow more robust as I learn more about this software's capacity. I start to see what makes people rave about FileMaker Pro, especially releases 8 and after. "Robust and versatile" doesn't even come close as sufficient description, and the app is not that hard to learn. Don't know why it has taken me so long to get into it. (Better late than never, as we geezer geeks say.)
Perhaps my messing around with earlier releases of FileMaker Pro made release 9.0.1 less intimidating than I'd have found it as a total db newbie. In that case I might have started with Bento, and perhaps could have accomplished this in that just-released "lite" version of FMPro. As it happened, I managed to achieve my results with the full-featured version. Proves to me that FileMaker Pro 9 doesn't bite. In fact, I feel about FileMaker Pro 9 much the way the French symbolist poet Gerard de Nerval felt about the pet lobster he reportedly took for walks in the Tuileries: "He does not bark, and he knows the secrets of the deep."
By A.D. Coleman, Posted 2/4/08
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© Copyright 2008 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, firstname.lastname@example.org.