June 6, 2007

The FileMaker story

Unfortunately, the first draft of this post got eaten. I’m now trying again.

In response to its small but vocal constituency, I got myself briefed on the FileMaker story. My conclusion, in a nutshell, is that FileMaker sometimes is a good alternative to low-end use of a standard relational DBMS. If you do feel able to use more standard-style products, you often should, for all sorts of obvious flexibility and future-proofing reasons. But if you can’t, or if you’re really confident the project won’t grow past a certain level, the FileMaker class of products can be a very appealing alternative.

Make no mistake; FileMaker is very different from conventional DBMS/app dev tool combos (and that’s the right comparison, as it combines aspects of both product categories into one). Indeed, the whole discussion is complicated by an unfortunate terminological confusion. Way back to the days of dBase and then Paradox, the “desktop” sense of “database software” was very different from the classic IT sense. What’s worse, these often weren’t really desktop products at all. That said, FileMaker fits into the desktop-database class of products, competing much more directly with Microsoft Access than with anything else. That is, it has selected application development and database management features, tightly bundled together, but falling far short of what is found in traditional DBMS or app dev tools.

How different is it? Well,

Product futures include extending ODBC, Web, and general openness capabilities, and increasing the 250 user limit.

It also may be interesting to clarify a bit about the product’s history. FileMaker was developed outside Apple, then acquired into Apple’s Claris software subsidiary. Claris had 13-14 products at its peak, but FileMaker was spun into its own unit (still an Apple subsidiary). I’m not too clear on what happened to the rest of Claris. The product is fully pixel-for-pixel compatible between the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows. And there’s been less total turmoil in FileMaker’s top management than one might think.

Well, there you have it. Does FileMaker fit among midrange OLTP DBMS? Not in my taxonomy. But is it useful technology? Evidently, quite so.


14 Responses to “The FileMaker story”

  1. Chris Kubica on June 7th, 2007 9:10 am


    Here’s the thing. As you say, FileMaker is very useful. FileMaker is the most purchased desktop database, to use the same term you’re using, if you don’t count Access (Access comes with many flavors of Office, but I’m not sure a very high percentage of purchasers actually use it). Also as you say, most people building mission-critical applications with FileMaker have no programming experience and no nothing about database theory, your “taxonomy” and so on. They’re getting work done with it.

    This all begs the question to me of the importance of theory in a vacuum. Sure, it’s nice to spend time here and there ruminating and the ultimate, normalized, transactional RDBMS, but when it comes down to it, people are going to use what they understand, what is useful, what is affordable, what “just works”. FileMaker software, for one, is all of these things.

    You really oughta try it out. Managing your contact management system in Oracle would be overkill, don’t you think? 😉

  2. Chris Kubica on June 7th, 2007 9:28 am

    A few more notes. I think the language you use to describe FileMaker is judgemental. Not sure you mean this or not. For instance, you call FMP the opposite of “traditional” and “conventional” RDBMSs. This is just your opinion. I could write a similar paragraph and call “conventional DBMS/app dev tool”s “old-school DBMS/app dev tool”s. Or instead of “old school” I could say “Legacy”. I’m not sure why everything has to be in one box or another. Zoho Wiki does not make an “old school” wiki like WordPress be bad nor does it make obsolete a really “old school” HTML-only wiki/web page bad. They are just different things.

    Now some point for point comments:

    “There’s no true FileMaker language”. Sure there is. They call it ScriptMaker. MS SQL calls it “stored procedures. Other tools have other names. The fact that FileMaker’s language is more “point and click” doesn’t make it less powerful. Indeed, it is much more useful and you don’t need a CompSci degree to use it to get pretty powerful applications up and running.

    Yes, you can get errors, infinite loops and other problems in FMP code just like in any other kind of code.

    ActiveX automation is rarely used in FileMaker development. But there is AppleScript automation, FileMaker plugins that let you do just about anything you want if FileMaker’s core functionality isn’t enough. Plus you can write your own custom functions. Plus…a lot more stuff.

    “There’s no separation between UI and data.” This isn’t true. What is true is that in FileMaker Pro 7.x and beyond, you have the choice of keeping GUI/Business Logic/Data in one file, or seperating everything out. It is up to the application builder to choose the best model.

    “FileMaker’s team programming capabilities are pretty nonexistent.” Not so. I run many int’l FileMaker projects with developers all over the world working on the same file(s). They rarely bump into each other. When they do, it is in ways you’d WANT them to…like if two people try to work on the same calculation formula at the same time.

    “The average number of users of a FileMaker app is 14-15. 250 concurrent users is a hard (and somewhat artificial) limit.” I’m not sure what data you have to back up these numbers, but I’m all ears.

    “FileMaker is limited in its overall website building capabilities. Alpha5’s web site is, if I recall correctly, built in its own tool. FileMaker can’t do that.” This is 222% wrong. 🙂 FileMaker has just about the easiest and most flexible Web building tools available. There’s:

    Instant Web Publishing: you build some layouts in FileMaker, check one box, and the database is being shared with others in their Web Browsers

    Custom Web Publishing (available only with FileMaker Server 8 Advanced): You can build your own custom Web apps using XML/XSLT, ODBC, JDBC, JavaScript, Flash, PHP, ASP, or whatever you want. There are even plugins to get FMP data talking to WebObjects and Ruby on Rails (I think).

    I’m open for corrrection if any of what I’ve said above isn’t right.

  3. Curt Monash on June 7th, 2007 10:58 am


    A lot of the things you are disputing were directly told to me by the company. Perhaps you should take up your disagreements with them. After all, what do they know? 😉

    Seriously, you seem passionately convinced that the things that aren’t practical to do in FileMaker aren’t very important. For many purposes, I think that’s wrong. If a project is so limited in scope that FileMaker does a great job on it, why not just go out and buy a packaged app to do the same thing?

    Obviously, there are cases where that’s not a great solution. But the limited amount of serious application development work being done on FileMaker suggests that those cases are rarer than you might at first think.

    Thanks for your enthusiasm!!


  4. Chris Kubica on June 7th, 2007 2:41 pm

    I really doubt Kevin and Co. at FMI told you some of that stuff you posted. Perhaps you didn’t take good notes?

    Curt, with all due respect, you don’t really understand FileMaker software. For example, in your last comment you said “But the limited amount of serious application development work being done on FileMaker”. Where are you getting this from? Did you make it up? FileMaker is in use at just about every government agency, almost all of the Fortune 500 and many other vast, international companies and agencies. It is also the hands-down favorite app of small to medium non-profits, schools and small business, at least in my 11 years of experience/street knowledge. What other application-building software can claim such a range as this?

    See http://filemaker.com/solutions/customers/index.html.

    No, FileMaker’s software is not being used when you call 555-1212 to look up someone’s phone number. But FileMaker, Inc. just isn’t in that market right now. Right now, they fill the void of “workgroup-sized” applications. Since there are gads of these at almost any place people work in this world, there’s plenty of room for growth.

    Maybe the bottom line for you (you tell me, though) is that you are interested only in “Databases” with a capital “D” using, if I may say, the “old school” or “academic” definition of “database.” What I’m (and FileMaker, I think) are talking about is something completely new…a powerful, scalable, platform-independent, inexpensive, average-person-understandable, flexible, open-standards-embracing, rapid-application-development environment.

    Thanks for allowing contrary opinions here. I do try to be fair in my responses. 😉

  5. Curt Monash on June 8th, 2007 8:06 pm


    Your attack on my professional integrity is uncalled for. I have no intention of dignifying it with further response.


  6. Chris Kubica on June 12th, 2007 9:02 pm


    Well I didn’t mean for it to come across that way. I certainly wasn’t feeling “attack”-y, just a bit perplexed at your claims.

    But I really do want to know where you got the “facts” you posted exactly. Let’s start with “But the limited amount of serious application development work being done on FileMaker”. Where’d you get that from? Or is it just your opinion/hunch stated as fact? I’m not accusing you of anything. But your source would shed much light. Thanks for your continued replies.

  7. Curt Monash on June 13th, 2007 1:23 am


    If the company thinks I mis-paraphrased them, they’re welcome to post here and correct me.

    Since you seem so sure I did that, maybe you should urge them to correct my errors.


  8. Chris Kubica on June 19th, 2007 11:46 am

    I’m not talking about what FMI told you anymore or whether you paraphrased them correctly or no. I’m talking about your sweeping statements about FileMaker software in general. So my question stands. I repeat:

    “But I really do want to know where you got the “facts” you posted exactly. Let’s start with “But the limited amount of serious application development work being done on FileMaker”. Where’d you get that from? Or is it just your opinion/hunch stated as fact? I’m not accusing you of anything. But your source would shed much light.

    There is absolutely no way someone at FileMaker, Inc. said that FileMaker wasn’t being used seriously by anyone. This has to have come from somewhere else. So where? If not you, then where?

  9. Curt Monash on June 20th, 2007 11:26 am

    What I wrote about “limited amount” is my opinion, fully supported by the facts I presented elsewhere in this thread prior to that point.


  10. Chris Kubica on June 26th, 2007 1:09 am

    I hereby propose a challenge to you and/or to database developers you know who are using those other platforms.

    Pretend to be a client trying to fulfill a business need and set up a request for quotation for some kind of interesting custom application (for 500 or less users) and I will devise a basic specification, cost estimate, and schedule for the application using FileMaker products (including the cost of consulting, hardware and software licenses). I can almost guarantee that I can offer the same or additional functionality in the application than those other technologies as well as being much cheaper, faster to build, and easier to use. And it will meet all of your DBA, IT Dept and security/integrity requirements, too.

    Let’s set aside theoretical discussions for a moment and talk about a real-world solution and see how it shakes out. This is really the only way for you and your readers to see the versatility and power of FileMaker-based solutions. Game, anyone?

  11. dr_z on July 23rd, 2007 8:50 am

    Actually, Curt, posting the comments that were made to you by somebody else without sufficient evidence to convince the average reader that said comments were not taken out of context, and were reproduced “in good faith” is libellous. The onus is on the author of any document purporting to reproduce conversation to back it up with suitable references.

    Refusing to offer a sensible rebuttal of Chris’ comments to _me_ seems lazy; and the “I won’t respond to what I consider to be personal attacks on my integrity” is a response I have seen littered throughout your posts, usually when you are being asked to justify claims you have made.

    I am a particular fan of this website, and up until now, I have let most of these go under the bridge, but this one takes the biscuit, and I don’t think I’ll be coming back.

    It was fun while it lasted.

  12. dr_z on July 23rd, 2007 8:51 am

    I should correct myself: it is not libellous to do what you’ve done: it could be construed as such.

  13. Curt Monash on July 23rd, 2007 9:32 am

    1. My representations of what the company said are accurate.

    2. If they were inaccurate to a material extent, it would be VERY EASY for the company to disavow them, right here on this site.

    3. Therefore, anybody who seriously entertains the possibility at this point that my comments are not substantially accurate isn’t thinking straight.

    4. You are incorrect about libel law. I have no duty to persuade the “average reader”. I merely have the duty to say things that are not unfounded. (Yeah, a double negative. At least when it comes to writing style, the law is an ass.) It is also helpful if I give some clue as to what the basis of my opinions is and if I generally try not to leave myself open to wild misinterpretation, and I think I’ve gone beyond the call of duty in meeting those standards.

    5. To repeat — what I wrote is correct, and I am confident the company is in essential agreement. Maybe they wish I’d used different phrasing, but if they do feel that way, they — unlike you and Chris — are professional enough not whine about it, let alone to make baseless accusations. Indeed, I don’t even KNOW whether they wish I’d used different phrasing, since they haven’t expressed that opinion to me in our brief discussions of what I wrote.

    6. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, OK?


  14. Filemaker for composite application development | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on October 13th, 2012 2:41 am

    […] by its most obnoxious or least clueful partisans. Hence, even though some insult-spewers take umbrage at an accurate description of FileMaker’s capabilities,* it wouldn’t be fair to write […]

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