I got a very interesting preview to the new FileMaker with Sydney-based FileMaker Senior Engineer David Head a couple of weeks ago, and it's been hard to keep my mouth shut since. You'll see why towards the end.

It may not be often you can generate excitement about a solid business product like FileMaker, but all the stops have been pulled out for the latest version, on sale from today.

Not only have new usability and display features been added and/or improved, the file format has changed for the first time since version 7.

But there's a lot more in the offing with a really exciting announcement about iDevices ...


FileMaker, of course, is a Mac and PC product and extremely widely deployed across the world, driving the databases behind more ventures than you might begin to imagine. So why am I writing about it? FileMaker is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Apple.

So bear with me - the truly exciting news, that really propels this software into a different realm entirely, is at the end of this story.

The new format for FileMaker Pro 12 is '.fmp12'. On a Mac, you can just drop your older FileMaker database document onto the FM12 icon in the Dock and it will convert it into the new format for you. I guess, on a PC, you boot FileMaker 12 and choose Open and navigate to the documents you want to convert (which also works on Macs, of course). It may be wise to save your older application (up to FM11) and files until you're sure all is good, but testing of this has been pretty extensive. Obviously, you will need to plan for conversions, and for archiving older versions.

The most obvious new thing about FileMaker 12 the application is the way it looks. Using the same kind of artistry Apple adds to the professional templates used in applications like Pages, Keynote and Numbers (and the old iWeb), FM12's templates are an easy way to launch into a new database for somebody (or for yourself) with a lot of the sweat of making it look nice already done.

And this is important - a database can be a pretty dry-looking informational resource if you don't take some care with the way it looks. And if it looks good, people find it easier to use, and it gets used more.

There are 40 themes to choose from. They even combine the right-looking fonts with rounded-corner-frames for graphics, for example, and there are font sets specific to iOS devices, with custom stencils for iPad and iPhone - and you'll learn why this matters shortly.

New layout object formatting includes image and gradient fills, and rounded corners and object states for buttons makes them both more attractive and 'clickable'.

You can modify the layouts, of course, so you're not handing your clients all the same-looking databases. Design features include grids and multiple guides; these can be shared between layouts. And don't worry - layout changes can be locked at the server end so end users can't change those all-important designs. It contains 16 starter solutions for setting up projects for specific applications. The UI still has web viewers, for links to Google Maps, for example.

Charts are easier to create and more powerful, and take note of the content you are working from. There are new chart types, like stacked bars - the number of charts has doubled to 10.

In other general improvements, FM12 has an accessibility inspector for compliance, and support for Braille readers and special keyboards.

Enhanced Container fields for docs, images, presentations and HD quality movie clips add to the interoperability of FM12 databases. The files don't need to be embedded, if file size is an issue (which is almost certainly is) as they can be stored on servers and linked, though playing speed may be network-speed dependent.

Items can be drag-and-dropped into the fields to set up rich, graphics enhanced files, with thumbnails for instant viewing created automatically.

PDFs in container fields can also be interactive: you can scroll down through multiple pages, zoom in and more, all within FileMaker Pro 12. This results in living, breathing interactive databases.

For developers, plugin management and installation is now much easier (ie get metadata from embedded files) and modal ('dialogue') windows can be scripted. There have been lots of server tweaks, like RAM-based server operations for increased access speeds, and fine tuning to reduce network calls, all making the new version feel much snappier thanks to faster WAN performance and faster optimised progressive backups.

The web publishing engine has also been rewritten for speed.

All major languages are now supported right form the get-go. Extra languages used to be rolled out as additions, but this release has all major languages supported in the initial release.

Customer examples are on the website (Austin, Acorn, Merck ...)

The Kicker
New menus enhance usability of databases from iDevices and scripts can be built from a script builder, and these things, together with themes designed for iDevices specifically, are now so very important because ... drumroll ... FileMaker Go is now FREE!

FileMaker Go is basically a remote iDevice access to FileMaker databases, which as you can imagine, makes an iPad an extremely important tool on the road. It can be used in sales deals, to manage project status, organise research notes in the field, or just to check inventory in the warehouse, except now all that is going to look better, as well - and on the iPad 3 with its better screen, these are really going to look great.

Before, FileMaker Go cost $19.99 for iPhone and $39.99 for iPad. So this handy solution was really portable and usable - but what if you have 50 salespeople on the road? It was adding up to quite a pricey solution.

Now that bottleneck is gone. Deploying Go to 100 iPads now costs the same as deploying to one.

The older version of the iOS app, 'FileMaker Go 11', will still available for sale for viewing older fp7 format databases, but doesn't this just make FMP12 look more attractive still?

When David Head talked to me, he had just done a multi-country roadshow and found it very hard not to tell people Go would become free. As soon as he told me, I had the same problem. And New Zealand seems to be full of excellent FileMaker developers - even my neighbour!

The new version of free Go has now got location data, which has been asked for since Go first appeared, and data can be exported from Go to other devices.

In total there are six new versions of FileMaker 12, all released together on April 5, with the Mac-only consumer database, FileMaker's Bento, due and update 'later'.

Pricing hasn't changed. You can't buy FileMaker in the Mac App Store, but there's a NZ store site now (you used to end up at the Australian store with Australian dollar-prices).

FileMaker Pro 12 $499 (upgrade $299)
FileMaker Pro 12 Advanced $799 (upgrade $499)
FileMaker Server 12 $1800 (upgrade $1080)
FileMaker Server 12 Advanced $5500 (upgrade $3300)
-FileMaker Go 12 for iPhone $FREE
-FileMaker Go 12 for iPad $FREE