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FileMaker – The Stealth Weapon User’s guide to business software, Pt 3

01 Aug 2010

Once you get your head around the fact that there is nothing out there that does what you need and you are going to have to have something built, then you are going to need to have some idea about ‘platforms’.

A platform is the array of technologies the solution is built from, and depending on the acronyms and brands used, suggests varying levels of capability. One brand that you probably haven’t heard of, but need to know about, is FileMaker.

FileMaker is a rapid development (remember that) relational database tool. If you don’t know the first thing about databases, think of a good oldfashioned Meccano set (Lego if you are under 30). All the pieces are in the box; what you build with it is up to you. This dovetails perfectly with one of the great Kiwi traditions: the DIY’er. Yes, you really can have a go at building your own software solution. FileMaker has a bunch of pre-built templates in the box, and if you have some halfway reasonable Excel skills and are prepared to put in the effort, you can probably build yourself a pretty reasonable tool that may well do the business for you.

The key to FileMaker’s ease-of-use is the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface. You don’t need to be able to write a line of code to achieve a wide range of functions and when you do need to write scripts, the built-in ScriptMaker makes that easy too. FileMaker is incredibly flexible with built-in graphing, import/export capabilities, storage for text, pictures, video, music, PDF and Excel reporting, internal web pages, scripting and a fully customisable interface.

You can start by using one of the templates, or import an Excel sheet or start from scratch. It is highly scalable; if you get it right, the system you build for a single user can be scaled right up to 1000+ users plus a web interface for external users, just by adding licences. It works seamlessly on Macs and PCs, and just released, iPhone and iPad.

As professional developers, we love it because it is so fast and easy to develop in. Typically we expect to be 50% faster in FileMaker than Microsoft’s Access, 80% faster than SQL, .Net, etc. and a staggering 250-300% faster than equivalently specified web applications. This means two things to our clients: cost-effectiveness and speed. The ability to quickly modify the solution to suit your changing needs is going to be a key factor as your business grows and evolves.

The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Information Society and Media shows that 40% of all productivity gains expected among European businesses in the next year will derive from the application of software technologies to their own businesses. It makes a lot of sense to spend on productivity gains through software. It makes very little sense to spend on software that can’t be cost-effectively modified to support your future needs. Of course, once you get into looking at having your own solution developed,

the complexity and the cost are going to start spiraling and it will start looking scary again. One important idea to consider is that not everything you do is unique, and you may not actually need to build a customised solution for all of your business processes. Typically, the accounting application represents both a lot of the actual data entry that your staff will do and a lot of the software complexity underpinning your activities. Of course, accounting programs are as cheap as chips and very common.

FileMaker makes an excellent front-end to accounting programs, providing the additional functions you require without needing to reinvent the wheel for all the accounting functions. The MoneyWorks accounting application even provides a plug-in that allows seamless integration between itself and FileMaker. An additional advantage of this approach is that it removes access to the accounting program for non-accounting staff; they only need to work on the FileMaker solution so your financial data security is enhanced.

The crazy thing is, with all these advantages, hardly anyone in the computing world has heard of FileMaker – which is why we call it ‘the stealth weapon’.