Traditional database programs are designed to create and manipulate lists of information. A name and address list is a classic example. So is an inventory list.
FileMaker Pro from Claris Corp., which runs on Apple Macintosh computers, goes way beyond tradition, mixing color and graphics with any information list to create a powerful and sophisticated tool capable of handling just about any database requirement. The program is an enhanced version of FileMaker II.
The software itself is merely a tool with which a database application can be designed to keep track of particular types of information.
Designing the application involves first determining the structure of the lists you want to use to store the data. Then you have to design the format of the forms that will appear on your screen. Next, you design the way you want the information to look when it is printed out. Only after all of that work is done -- and it can take weeks to finish a set of database applications for a small business -- can the work of entering the data begin.
If that sounds daunting, it is. Most businesses buy ready-made database applications tailored to their line of business or contract with consultants to write custom applications. And they often end up buying a computer system configured to run the application.
FileMaker Pro comes about as close as you can get to providing the tools that a competent amateur needs to design a database application rivaling those of the pros. It gives you a big head start with six business-oriented application templates that can be used as is or modified to meet your requirements.
They include "contacts," a database on people such as your customers or suppliers, "lead tracking" to keep track of phone calls, meetings, mailings and the like, and "products & services," a database for your product line. Then there is "expenses" to track expenses and income, "orders & invoices" for creating those forms and "project tracking" to record resources, status and milestones on large or small projects.
The core of a FileMaker Pro database is the individual data record composed of various fields of information to be stored, such as name, address and city.
An individual sales invoice can be an example of a single data record, while separate fields store the customer name, address, item purchased, quantity, amount and total. Each field has to be defined according to the kind of information it will contain. For example, the name, address and product are text fields, quantity and price are numeric fields and amount is a calculated field.
In addition to the typical text and numeric fields, FileMaker Pro lets you define fields for dates, time and pictures. A picture field can contain any picture you can import into the program, such as scanned photos or drawings made with other Macintosh programs.
There are two kinds of fields for making math computations. Calculation fields are based on data from other fields in a single data record. The other kind is a summary field, which performs computations on data from a group of records.
Once the fields are defined, you can use them in various ways, designing as many different layouts as you wish. A layout is an on-screen depiction that you make to control the way your data will appear either on the screen or out of the printer. You might have one layout for basic data entry, another for invoices and yet another to list your inventory. You can have as many as you want, and each can contain just the fields you want shown on that form.
When you design a layout in FileMaker Pro you have the graphics power of the Macintosh at your disposal. Graphic images imported from other programs or clip art files can be placed anywhere on the page. You can vary type fonts, styles and sizes as you wish. Lines and boxes can be drawn anywhere you want them. And if you have color, you can add that as well.
As you design the application, there are many ways that you can enhance it to make it easier to use. For instance, you can control what kind of data may be typed into a particular field to reduce errors. FileMaker Pro has a scripting tool that lets you automate many tasks. For instance, you could create scripts that would prepare an order for new bicycle spokes when you were down to your last 50, or a script that writes a personalized thank-you letter to each customer two weeks after their purchase.
FileMaker Pro is a significant advance over FileMaker II, combining the ease of use typical of Macintosh with sophisticated database applications.
Richard O'Reilly is a Los Angeles Times staff writer. Readers' comments are welcomed, but the author cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Richard O'Reilly, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.