Author: Susan Prosser and Stuart Gripman
Publisher: O’Reilly, 2010
Aimed at: FileMaker users
Pros: Comprehensive coverage of the commands and options of FileMaker
Cons: Overambitious in how far it tries to go
Reviewed by: Kay Ewbank
Is this "Missing Manual" the book you have been looking for?
FileMaker is an interesting database because it started out trying extremely hard to be simple, and in consequence was very limited. Over its lifetime more and more features have been added, to the extent that the authors of this book suggest using it as a front end for SQL databases. You probably don’t want to go that far, but there is more to FileMaker than just a simple paint-the-forms data manager.
FileMaker doesn’t come with a paper manual any longer, just a PDF version, so there really is a missing manual. In view of this, the opening couple of chapters of the book cover getting started with FileMaker - the interface and basic tasks, how records are viewed and how to find records.
Next come chapters on creating a database and adding power to your database. The authors show how to add calculated fields, how to create a related table, and how to create a portal - FileMaker’s term for a form with a subform. Related tables are introduced in a very simplistic fashion at this stage, with the rationale for using them condensed into a sentence or two, but there’s a promise of more in-depth coverage to come.
Part three of the book is titled ‘thinking like a developer’, which sounds unlikely in a book about FileMaker. In reality this section of the book covers a few more advanced topics, starting with a meatier chapter on relational databases. The authors are still following the ‘avoid any notion that this is tough stuff’ road, which makes sense given the probably audience.
Unfortunately, databases aren’t that simple, so they end up having nice comforting examples about selling antique candelabra and sales slips, followed immediately by ‘Choosing entities’ and ER diagrams, which is a jump in jargon and complexity that brings you up sharp.
I have sympathy with the authors; if you’re going to cover the more complex stuff you have to go into relational territory, but I don’t know how a reader who needs to be told how to use scroll bars and zoom controls (covered earlier) will cope.
Chapters on field options and layout tools are competently written, and the section on creating layouts is probably the most useful for the audience the book is likely to attract. There are a couple of chapters on using calculations with coverage of the functions you can use, and again these get the ideas across reasonably well.
I’m unconvinced by the two chapters on scripts in the sense that I don’t think they’d teach anyone to write scripts for the bits FileMaker doesn’t do, but the commands each get their description so the ‘missing manual’ remit is met. Again, I have sympathy with the authors; what DO you do in a book that has to cover everything a database offers when you have to assume no prior knowledge?
Part Four of the book is titled ‘becoming a power developer’, so has chapters on the developer utilities - the script debugger, data viewer, writing your own custom functions. There’s a chapter on setting up advanced relationships, others on advanced calculations and advanced scripting. I did almost choke on my coffee when I reached the section in advanced calculations on recursion; that’s definitely a topic too far for the reader I imagine will buy this title!
One more major quibble is that Reporting and Analysis are lumped into a chapter in this section. While FileMaker takes a rather unusual approach to creating reports and queries, I think this topic should have been tackled in more depth earlier.
The final section looks at integration and security, with chapters on sharing your database, adding security, and sharing data with other systems such as SQL databases and importing data from sources including XML and ODBC.
One point to bear in mind about this book is that one of the authors (Susan Prosser), is a FileMaker fanatic. It was the first database she saw, she’s stuck with it ever since, and she’s used FileMaker to develop databases for unlikely purposes such as managing legal documents, analyzing retirement programs for a financial advisor, for inventory and sales and for ‘a major bank track projections’.
She suggests - apparently seriously - that getting married is an occasion to break out a new database, which even by the standards of a database enthusiast like myself sounds like overkill.
What this means is that the material is well written, and the ground is all covered. I still think that anyone finding the beginning of the book useful will struggle well before the more advanced topics, and some of those advanced topics go too fast, lack the structure behind the ideas, and try to be too ambitious.
However, as a missing manual you would find the commands all covered, so it lives up to its title.