The Support Group Blog

FileMaker Pro 11: First Thoughts

FileMaker 11 has shipped, and with it come a number of new features and interface enhancements. 11 is an evolutionary, not revolutionary, update, but that’s not a bad thing.  In the same way that FileMaker 7 introduced a whole new architecture and FileMaker 8 refined the product with script parameters and results, tab panels, PDF creation, and so on, FileMaker Pro 11 continues the goodness of 10’s updated UI, script triggers, dynamic reports and saved finds.  Here are some initial thoughts on some of 11’s new features and how they’ll impact us.

Charting - You can now create charts in your layouts using the new chart object.  Similar to adding a portal or web viewer, the chart object allows you to define the properties of a chart: what data should it use; what style of chart (bar, horizontal bar, line, area, or pie); and color, font, and 3D formatting.

By far charting is the most visually exciting new feature, and the one whose value is most readily understood (even if not everyone yet understands how to use them).  As developers we get a fair number of people asking for charts in their systems. In the past, we’ve had to either use third-party plugins or use a web viewer and a web-based charting tool. Now many of the types of charts we create can be handled natively.  There will still be call for plugins for some of the more complicated charts, but I know immediately of several customers that are going to be happy.

Quick Find - One small field in the status menu bar, one very large advance to making it easier than ever to find your FileMaker data. (I wish I’d been able to talk about this in the webinar I recently did.) The Quick Find field allows you to search across all the fields on the layout (including related fields) at once, so you can quickly find (see that?) people named Washington, living on Washington St, or based in our nation’s capital with just one simple search.  It’ll only return records from the current table, same as any normal search, and only look through the fields on the current layout, but I imagine it’ll quickly become the way to do most finds, breaking into Find mode when you need to get more specific.

Quick reports in table view - A don’t envy the person who had to come up with a name for this feature, or to describe it the first time. Table view gets an radical overhaul with FileMaker Pro 11.  First of all, you can create new fields right there while in Browse more, without ever invoking the Manage Database dialog, jsut by clicking in the next available column (if you’re ever created a record through a portal’s empty last row, it’s like that, but creating fields by moving sideways).

But then it gets even more interesting.  You can right-click a column header and sort and group by that field, creating virtual sub-summary parts (I say virtual because the layout itself is not modified), with a user-chosen color for identification.  And then you can also add subtotals (or averages, or other aggregations), which creates the corresponding summary field for you as well.  This makes table view a very powerful tool for ad hoc reporting.

FileMaker thinks enough of this new table functionality that it is now the default when creating a new database—just drop into table view and start creating fields, no need to open Manage Database.  And I’d agree with them.  I know some developers stay away from granting their users table view access, as there’s a fair bit less control of the interface.  But table view’s new power will hopefully convince developers to find ways to make it available.

Layout Inspector - The new inspector palette for setting formatting and other options in Layout mode doesn’t really make it possible to do anything new, but our developer team is psyched for these.  Gone are almost all of the old modal dialogs for setting field behaviors, number formatting, drop-down lists, sliding and so on. The only downside will be some retraining to stop trying to use our long-standing keyboard shortcuts to bring up those dialogs.

Manage Layouts - Yes!  A non-modal window of all layouts, with folders, filtering by name, the ability to set layout options, and a button to immediately open another layout in a new window?  What more could we ask for?

Script Triggers - The OnLayoutExit and OnViewChange triggers are nice, though we’re still trying to come up with the killer feature for these (particularly since you can do OnViewChange better with custom menus), but the OnObjectValidate is great.  Now you can really work with data in a field before FileMaker’s built-in validation, allowing you to create more complex validation.  You can even use it to allow “less” valid data—your script could, for instance, allow for custom date and time formats and convert “6p” to “6:00 PM”, or “next Wednesday” to “3/17/2010”.

Portal Filtering - New in Filemaker Pro 11 is the ability to filter a portal by calculation.  Imagine you want to use a portal to show all of the students in a class who have been absent more that a certain number of times, or who fall into a particular GPA range. In previous versions of FileMaker, you would have needed to create additional relationships in Manage Database. With portal filtering, when you create the portal on the layout you can define an additional calculation to control and restrict which students show up.  And that calculation has enormous potential to do things that you really just can’t do in the graph, such as use variables, constants, and unstored fields.

At first looks like a near-complete solution to Relationship Graph chaos, but it turns out that it’s a little more complicated.  Portal filtering can easily filter related records, but that filter isn’t going to affect any calculations that use that relationship.  A calculated average number of days absent is going to show the average for all the students in the class, regardless of what’s showing in the portal.

There are workarounds, of course, using script triggers and merge variables, or summary fields defined in the related table. We’ll have some examples of cool portal filtering techniques up soon.

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