Posted by on August 4, 2012

I don’t spend a lot of time on FileMaker’s TechNet. Usually when I am looking for a FileMaker answer I go to FMForums. I’ve been using that web site for over a decade, so it’s just natural for me to go there instead. However, aparently a member there, Daniel Wilhelm, posted there about his frustration with FileMaker and Tim Dietrich responded with his own struggles with FileMaker, which got me thinking about FileMaker’s place in my business.

Having used FileMaker so much over the last two decades and published systems with it to every platform it has available, I’ve come across my share of frustrations. Daniel has some points regarding the limitations of FileMaker, although it’s unfortunate that his post was more of a vent than an argument against FileMaker.

I would love it if FileMaker catered a bit more to the professional developer, but understand that with dual markets (professional developer and novice user), FileMaker, Inc. divides its resources between features that are useful to each. But it has been over 20 years now that FileMaker Pro has been in development (30 since FileMaker has existed in some form, apparently). Some specific features for developers would be very welcome:

  • Native GUI tools for OS X, Windows, iPhone and iPad. The new layout tools available in FileMaker 12 are welcome, and do make it easier to create attractive systems for each platform, but native-looking interface widgets for each platform could be much easier.
  • A real programming language built in. The scripting capabilities of FileMaker are powerful, especially with the addition of script variables a few versions ago, but having the power of a programming language is what makes plugins like ScriptMaster and SmartPill PHP so attractive. It would also be nice to be able to simple write scripts using text instead of having to find commands in a list. I don’t even care what language FileMaker would use for this.
  • Direct support for workaround features. FileMaker does often come through on this one. We used to have to use global fields to temporarily store data and now we have script variables. Dynamically sorting portals used to be more difficult, but still requires a workaround. I’m building a feature for a client right now that resorts portals with drag and drop, and it would be nice to have that built in.
  • A true event-based scripting execution system. Having worked with Cocoa, Real Studio and FaceSpan, all of these allow just about any event to be captured and have code executed. FileMaker has come a long way on this front too, this time with script triggers, but I would love the ability to capture anything the user does and react to it.

I’m sure that others could add to this list, but I think these are my top complaints with FileMaker. And periodially I decide to try something else instead of FileMaker. Anything else has to offer similar rapid development and be cross-platform, which are the primary reasons I still use FileMaker.

Real Studio is my favorite FileMaker alternative. It is cross platform for desktops and addresses each of the shortcomings of FileMaker listed above. These days, however, FileMaker’s support for iOS is simply amazing, and Real Studio doesn’t have anything like it. In fact, it’s the cross-platform capabilities of FileMaker that have always kept me with it more than anything else, and until Real Studio can compile for iOS, it can’t replace FileMaker. Even for just desktop applications, the printing in Real Studio can’t hold a candle to the ease of generating reports with FileMaker.

Cross-platform features are what keeps me from replacing FileMaker with Cocoa/WebObjects. Here we have all the platforms except Windows. As much as I love to use my Mac, most of my clients are still using Windows. I’m somewhat surprised that Apple doesn’t have some form of Cocoa available, which would certainly ease development of Windows programs that integrate with iOS. For example, I use OmniFocus on my iPad, iPhone and Mac, and it generally acts like three interfaces into my task list. The Omni Group obviously used Cocoa for this for all three, and I wonder (just a little bit, not enough to actually investigate yet) how iOS/Windows developers solve this issue.

Titanium seems interesting, and takes cross-platform even further. I haven’t delved into it too far, but it seems to include the ability to use a single codebase for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android. It seems to miss out on rapid development and ease of use, but I would like to check it out more.

Nothing else even comes to mind as an alternative to FileMaker. I’m sure there are other options, but those are the ones I’ve either used or investigated to some extent. The deal-breaker seems to be cross-platform capabilities. I can have a single system built with FileMaker and it will run unmodified with Macs, Windows, iOS or the web, and until I find something that does the same with at least comparable rapid development, I’ll be sticking with FileMaker.

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