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You can read my 2005 piece about FileMaker Pro version 8 written for The Sydney Morning Herald below.

Like much of my work I wrote it for business users, not geeks.

Much of what I said still stands with FileMaker Pro version 10. Most of the time FileMaker is easier to use than Microsoft Access if you’re not a coder.

I’ve recently discovered some areas where Access is simpler than FileMaker. Access makes it easier to turn two straightforward flat-file databases into a relational database. FileMaker does the job, but it is not intuitive.

I can’t say why Access beats FileMaker in this department. I suspect it is because Microsoft designed Access from the ground up as a relational database while FileMaker was originally a flat file database. Filemaker bolted on relational capabilities later. If you know of a better explanation please comment below.

FileMaker 8 by Bill Bennett

Unless you happen to have the kind of brain that is politely described as ‘antisocial’ storing, tracking, sorting and retrieving large amounts of information is best left to a machine.

Data processing is what computers were doing for most of the past 50 year before they escaped from their air-conditioned bunkers and made their way on to our desktops and into our homes.

These days, the database software handling these tasks can run on standard PCs. But there’s a big problem with most of the programs designed to help you sort digital wheat from electronic chaff; they are either so complex you need a PhD in computer science to use them or they are too simple to be of much help outside of limited applications.

Microsoft’s Access sits at the difficult end of the spectrum. There’s no doubt the database packaged with some versions of Office is incredibly powerful. You need to be comfortable with programming code to perform even the simplest tasks. And a lot of Access’ features are geared towards IT departments, not individual users. Which means it is strictly for professionals.

Most easy-to-use databases tend to be geared towards specific functions, such as contact managers and helping you keep track of music collections. They’re useful, but not flexible and you need to buy a different product to manage each task, which can get expensive.

FileMaker Pro (now on version 8, $499) bridges the gap. It manages to be both powerful and relatively easy-to-use mainly because it has stayed focused on usability and not packing-in every conceivable feature.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, Filemaker is owned by Apple, which knows to build computers and music players capable of hide complexity behind simplicity.

Creating a database in FileMaker Pro is largely a matter of manipulating items on a cleverly designed graphical screen. It is mainly about building tables then dragging, clicking and filling in forms.

To get you started the software comes with 40-odd pre-built template databases for different home and business applications. Some of these will fit your needs out of the box. More often, a template will need  tweaking – this generally won’t present too many problems for most people. FileMaker lends itself to tinkering. So set aside some time to learn its ways you’ll find it rewarding.

One interesting aspect of FileMaker is its close ties to Microsoft Office – for example you can pull data from an Excel spreadsheet into FileMaker as a way of kick-starting a database. It is also easy to move information from FileMaker to Office applications. The software can also output information as .PDF files.

Building simple databases from scratch isn’t too hard. But sooner or later you may need to get to grips with the software on a more technical level. FileMaker is a relational database, this means it can use multiple tables and link information between them. So you might keep people’s names and address in one table and things they buy in another. Making the most of this functionality can get tricky, although it is worth the effort.

The great thing about FileMaker is that creating databases doesn’t have to be complicated. Filemaker a great tool for non-programmers to build quick and dirty database applications. And that’s what matters.

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