Although hundreds of new iOS apps appear every day, apps capable of transforming our handheld devices into nearly indispensable, mobile business tools come along far less frequently. FileMaker Go, recently released by Apple’s subsidiary, FileMaker, Inc., is just such a game-changer, providing professionals and small business users a way to access and edit data while on the go. FileMaker Go is available in two versions, one for the iPhone/iPod touch and another for the iPad. The introduction of FileMaker Go provides users of iOS devices the ability to both view and manipulate the sort of complex databases that enable most businesses to operate more efficiently and effectively.
FileMaker Inc.’s initial foray into the iOS world was Bento, a standalone database that provides users the ability to manage all sorts of data right on their iOS device, never requiring the purchase and use of Bento on their desktop Mac (a Windows version of Bento doesn’t exist). Bento comes with 25 pre-built databases designed to manage everything from recipes to home inventories. While Bento is reasonably effective for this type of use, it comes up way short if you need a database to manage an entire business. Database software for business use needs to be more adaptable, enabling the use of separate forms designed to support many different activities like maintaining product inventories and managing sales, while at the same time preserving useful relationships between the data that it holds. Such databases are said to be relational because they act like smart file cabinets. By design they are built to maintain key relationships between data items so that you can go beyond just keeping track of how many widgets you have and how many are sold. A relational database enables you to go an extra step further, making it easy for example, to figure out which widgets a particular customer has bought from you, and in what quantity, and when. Relational databases can be built in such a way that insightful analyses into how your business is doing can be extracted from their innards with little to no effort on your part. In many ways, relational databases are the very engines of modern commerce, empowering business owners with the reports and summaries needed to understand how their business is doing at any given moment.
With that introductory background, FileMaker Go provides iOS device users the ability to remotely access and edit databases created by Bento’s desktop-bound big brothers — FileMaker Pro and FileMaker Pro Server — fully relational applications that run equally effectively on Mac OS X or Windows. FileMaker Pro (and its companion server that permits numerous users to access databases at the same time) is a mature application now in its eleventh release, and it has all the functions and accoutrements needed for the heavy lifting that business users require. FileMaker Pro is a deep and powerful program. Although it employs a graphic user interface that keeps it accessible to the casual user, it also has a multitude of features that enable experienced programmers to build database engines capable of performing on the business stage with great aplomb. FileMaker Go, however, cannot itself be used to build databases (really, we are talking about handheld iOS devices here – and even if you could build relational databases on your iPhone, would you really want to do that?). FileMaker Go instead provides the wondrous ability to operate such databases on handheld iOS devices, either remotely with all of the data stored on the device itself, or more typically, remotely with the actual database physically residing on a distant computer system. What is especially striking is that FileMaker, Inc. made few compromises in designing FileMaker Go to accomplish this amazing feat. Almost all the operational facets of the desktop software remain accessible from your iOS device: calculations, scripts, Web-enabled windows, and relationship-revealing portals are all carried over except for aspects of features that iOS devices inherently lack (i.e., customized menus installed on menu bars in desktop-operated layouts are hard to display when there are no menu bars in the iOS interface). Visually, both the iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad versions work nearly identically; the controls on the iPad version are perhaps a bit more intuitive since more screen real estate is available to access and operate them.
The overall experience of using a database with FileMaker Go is astonishingly similar to using it on a desktop computer with FileMaker Pro. Controls within form layouts, like buttons, drop-down menus, and tabbed panels all just work, except now by touching the elements instead of clicking them. When editing a date field, for example, the thumbwheel controls characteristic of the iOS interface automatically appear to edit the date. Although there are some behavioral differences between the operation of FileMaker Go and the desktop-bound FileMaker Pro, these are easily grasped and well documented. Even complicated FileMaker scripts (scripts are like little programs or macros designed to carry out complex manipulations of data) mostly work with the exception of script commands that either just don’t apply to the iOS platform or aren’t supported yet. FileMaker Inc. has documented in detail what works and what doesn’t, so there is no need to guess what will or won’t work. You can also easily build steps into scripts that can figure out whether they are being executed on an iOS device, and then if they are, conditionally provide workarounds to avoid unexpected or undesirable outcomes (print? – print where and on what? – more on that later). Nonetheless, it’s wise to check out all of your scripts with a database that you’ve backed up first. For example, if a script is designed to import a text file and then delete the first record (perhaps because it contains an unnecessary report header), FileMaker Go will skip the import operation since it isn’t supported, and then merrily proceed to delete the record in the current found set. Such an outcome is unexpected and likely undesirable.
In online mode, where the database remains on the desktop computer or server, FileMaker can access and manipulate a database from anywhere with Wi-Fi or 3G coverage (of course, you can only connect by 3G if your iDevice has that capability; EDGE networks aren’t supported at this time). Additions or edits that you make on your iDevice will appear instantaneously on the hosting desktop computer or server and other connected clients, including similarly connected iOS devices. Performance under these circumstances is generally dependent upon the speed of your connection. Over Wi-Fi, screens of all but the most graphically-laden layouts appear and update within a few seconds at most. Performance using 3G cellular networks can be considerably more sluggish; in this case, performance is more notably limited by the speed and quality of the network connection, and naturally, by the complexity of the layout being accessed. Views within the database originally designed to be used on a large monitor can be viewed and used on iOS devices, especially since iOS gestures, like pinch-zooming and swipe-scrolling, are fully supported. But if you intend to remotely access views like that on a regular basis, it would be a good idea to redesign your layouts accordingly. This is particularly true if your iOS device of choice is the iPhone or iPod Touch. The iPad’s screen is large enough to effectively access most layouts without requiring them to first be redesigned. FileMaker Go for the iPad may almost singlehandedly drive the acquisition and use of iPads in the enterprise sector for this very reason.
In offline mode, FileMaker Pro databases can be stored and operated on the iOS device itself, assuming of course that the database files are small enough to fit within the iDevice’s memory store. It’s really easy to move databases on to and back off iDevices using File Sharing in iTunes (just be sure to close the relevant file out of FileMaker Pro on the computer first). You can also copy databases to iDevices by downloading the file from email if it’s not too large, from popular file sharing sites, or from the web. Once the database is stored inside your iDevice, databases can be used by FileMaker Go without need for a Wi-Fi or 3G connection. However, when you transfer a database to your iDevice, you are just creating a copy of the original file. The unfortunate drawback is that FileMaker Go has no built-in mechanism to later synchronize changes made to a database remotely to the original database that stayed behind. In this case you are on your own — you either need to do this manually (and small business owners with few users have been known to do this) or by using databases designed to accomplish this feat on their own (several third party vendors provide this sort of capability, for a cost of course). If the database is being used remotely just to access data, this lack of built-in synchronization isn’t a huge drawback. For example, this mode of use is fine for having quick reference information at your fingertips when you might be traveling in regions with spotty access to wireless communications. This could be an existing contact database or anything else that doesn’t need to be shared with other users. But if a customer buys a zillion widgets and depletes your entire inventory right after you walk out the door, you will be blissfully (or not) ignorant that you no longer have anything left to sell.
FileMaker Go for either iOS device platform is an outstanding initial debut, vastly expanding the utility of iOS devices to the enterprise sector. It’s easy to access existing FileMaker Pro databases hosted on desktop computers or servers using wireless connectivity, and while the speed isn’t always breathtaking, it’s just amazing to see it work as well as it does. FileMaker Go handily deals with most scripts, layout views, buttons and other controls, container fields, and for icing on top — it supports web views and relational portals too. Databases small enough to fit can also be downloaded onto iOS devices using any of several different methods including File Sharing in iTunes, and these databases can then be snappily accessed even when wireless connectivity is unavailable.
For most purposes, FileMaker Go is a great traveling companion that allows you to view and edit data on the road. But there are some limitations. Some of these are inherent to the iOS platform as it exists today, while others exist because FileMaker Inc. has chosen not to provide support for certain features in this initial version. An example of a limitation of the iOS platform is printing — the iPhone and iPad do not support printing and thus neither does FileMaker Go. In a related fashion, there is no Preview Mode, so the common practice of using a script to take a user to a report layout and then switching to Preview Mode to review summary information will need to be reworked for FileMaker Go. FileMaker Inc. contends that the advent of live sub-summary parts means Preview Mode is no longer essential for this function. Because the iOS platform lacks any file system, operations that result in saving a file are understandably inoperative as well. Most unfortunately, this includes the ability to send files as email attachments from FileMaker Pro. The lack of support for printing and file-saving makes it difficult to get data out of FileMaker Go on the road; the only simple method I found was to save screen images to the photo album (by pressing the Home button and Sleep button simultaneously) and then emailing these images to yourself or others. Alternatively you could use any of several third party apps capable of printing images in the onboard Photo album to printers shared over networks or accessible by Wi-Fi.
I said it before, but it should be repeated: you can’t develop databases using FileMaker Go. All development must be done using FileMaker Pro or FileMaker Pro Advanced. Advanced FileMaker designers should also take note that FileMaker Go doesn’t support third-party plug-ins of any kind. Also, the ability to create and view charts that was introduced in the most recent version 11 of FileMaker Pro are simply not supported; any charts occurring in your layouts will appear as a blank area. Finally, FileMaker Go does not allow any sharing or hosting of any kind. If a database is local to an iOS device, only a single user is supported. And I’ve already covered the lack of a synchronization solution; if you move a modified database back to a hosting computer you’ll need to reintegrate new or altered data back into the original database yourself.
Container fields support all image formats supported by iOS. You can copy, paste and delete images by holding your finger on the field. Images copied or cut in this fashion can subsequently be pasted to another container field, or to external locations like messages being composed in Mail. Other file formats like PDF and Word files, or sound and video files can be stored, but the contents of fields containing these types of files can’t be launched, display their contents as a thumbnail, or be copied and pasted elsewhere.
FileMaker Go is pretty amazing whether you run it on an iPhone/iPod Touch or an iPad, but you’ll find it much easier to view and interact with layouts originally designed to be displayed on desktop and laptop screens on the iPad’s more expansive screen. Although both programs are expensive by iOS standards, they enable jaw-dropping mobile access to complex databases created and hosted by desktop applications ranging in cost from $300 to $3000. Most businesses that want to provide employees in the field access to their databases will consider the cost of FileMaker Go nearly negligible in comparison to the cost of other mobile client solutions.
But beware, if you don’t own at least one desktop version of FileMaker Pro (version 7 or higher on either Mac or Windows) or need to access and use databases that have already been created and are available either locally or remotely hosted, FileMaker Go won’t do much more for you then occupy a slot on your home screen.
FileMaker, Inc.’s web site provides an excellent introductory video that demonstrates the features of FileMaker Go on both the iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad platforms.