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FileMaker Mobile

A Mac/Jfile user's perspective: good but a little limited

by Kevin Brislin

March 2001, Pen Computing 38

There are reasons to get excited about Filemaker Inc.'s first Palm OS product, and there are reasons to send the marching band back home. Filemaker Mobile is being advertised as "companion" software, which brings us to our first caveat; it is entirely dependent on Filemaker Pro 5. All database design and (as you will discover) speedy data entry must and should be done on your computer in FM Pro 5. Most users will be very disappointed at this since it relegates the Palm itself as a mere "companion" to your primary computer. Personally, I have come to think of my Palm as a separate entity, not as an adjunct to my desktop computer. However, for those users that live by their Filemaker databases, this may not be as big of a problem as I initially thought.

Filemaker Mobile consists of a relatively small (88K) application that installs quite easily onto your Palm. Using the program on my Palm V was very easy; however, I could not get FM Mobile to sync with any databases on a Handspring Visor Platinum for some odd reason. I could not figure out whose problem this was either.

To initiate and install a database onto the Palm, you open the database you want on your computer and share it via the settings under the File>Sharing menu. The second disappointment comes when you realize that you can only synchronize 20 fields from any particular database. This becomes a serious impediment when you want to work with larger databases, such as equipment inventories or sales tracking data sets. Also, when you sync with the desktop databases, they must be open at that time. Those of us that are used to having Applescripts that open and close Filemaker Pro automatically are in for a small shock with this. The nice part is that multiple databases can be synchronized simultaneously.

When using Filemaker Mobile on your Palm of choice, the lackluster feature set becomes readily apparent. There are no programming features on the Palm application; it is strictly a data entry vehicle, and a weak one at that. There is no way to identify different field types or different ways of entering data. Case in point: in a date field, you must use the entire date for it to sync correctly. Therefore, the date 1/1/01 must be entered as 1/1/2001. There are also no drop down menus, check boxes, radio buttons...nothing but a no frills text entry line for each field. This, more than anything, makes using Filemaker Mobile pure drudgery instead of a great experience.

Considering that Filemaker is in direct competition with existing database solutions, I can't for the life of me figure out why the features of Filemaker Mobile are so anemic. Having used JFile and FMSync for JFile for a number of years, I have become used to creating databases on the fly entirely on my Palm V, and having drop down menus and other data entry aids to assist me in getting data into the database quickly and efficiently, Synchronization between the Palm and my iMac has always been flawless with FMSync for JFile. I can even create databases on my Palm and have them constructed in Filemaker Pro during synchronization with FMSync for JFile. Not so with FM Mobile. While Filemaker Mobile works, it just feels so "not-ready-for-primetime" that I question why it was released at all.

One thing I can say in Filemaker Mobile's favor is that it works with various flavors of Windows and Macintosh operating systems. One must remember that Filemaker Pro 5 is a cross-platform solution, so it stands to reason that FM Mobile must be up to that particular challenge also. As one Windows user put it to me, "We are so hungry for any solution that will let Filemaker Pro users have their databases on their Palms that it doesn't matter what it can and can't do. At least it's there." Which I guess says it all; as a first revision for a cross-platform solution, Filemaker Mobile isn't so bad. But for those of us in the Macintosh world that have gotten used to a far more elegant solution (albeit for $13.95 more), this release is hopefully just a sign of better things to come. US$49.00

-Kevin Brislin

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