FileMaker 19, hands on: Veteran app builder keeps up with the low-code crowd

For years, FileMaker has offered business users without coding skills a way to build simple database-driven applications, and also provided professional developers with the tools to create fairly powerful custom applications. 

The rise of low-code tools like Salesforce Lightning and Microsoft’s Power Platform has provided more competition for FileMaker’s publisher Claris, which, as well as adding new features in recent annual updates, has also given low-code users an easy way to use cloud services’ APIs, while retaining its traditional market of professional FileMaker developers. Claris has also been balancing the deeper integration it can offer with iOS devices with the demands of cross-platform developers.

FileMaker’s own scripting language is what makes it a development tool rather than just a database on which you can build applications. But while there are a few sources of FileMaker scripts that developers can reuse, that’s nothing compared to the vast numbers of libraries and frameworks available to JavaScript developers. So FileMaker developers have increasingly been making use of web viewers to take advantage of JavaScript libraries — but there hasn’t been an easy way to round-trip data between the two.

FileMaker 19 lets developers call JavaScript functions in a FileMaker script, so they can use all those JavaScript libraries to embed maps, animate graphics, visualise data or do pretty much anything that another JavaScript developer has already thought about.

It’s a two-way integration as well: developers can call FileMaker scripts with JavaScript code, and data from FileMaker tables can now be retrieved in JSON format so that web apps can interact with and display information from FileMaker apps.

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Using JavaScript in FileMaker gives developers a way to make apps richer.

Image: Claris

The JavaScript integration is for pro developers, but one of the things they can do with it is package up their integrations as components and publish them in the Claris Marketplace, for business users and low-code developers to use in their own FileMaker apps. There are already plenty of add-ons for charts, calendars and other components that you can drag into your FileMaker applications from third-party developers, but you do have to pay to use them: Claris will also be bringing out some pre-built add-ons for charts, calendars, progress bars, photo galleries timelines and Kanban boards.

Connect to cloud services

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FileMaker 19 also adds a lot more integrations with cloud APIs; the Data API introduced some years ago gave developers access to a handful of APIs, but now there are around 50 pre-built API connectors like Box, DocuSign, HelloSign, G Suite, Salesforce, SurveyMonkey and others. These give you straightforward, point-and-click, drag-and-drop integration that takes care of authentication, API keys, web hooks, security, rate limiting and all the other intricacies that often put cloud APIs out of the reach of low-code business users. You’re not restricted to the app connectors that Claris has already made: pro developers can still use DAPI or the Connector Kit that Claris is making available, which lets them publish app connectors for other services (in the marketplace or internally for users in their own organization).

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The templates for getting started on useful apps have been updated in FileMaker 19.

Image: Mary Branscombe / ZDNet

These app connectors can be strung together into workflows that Claris calls ‘templates’. So if you want to automate sending out content through Mailchimp that you keep on Dropbox when you get a sales inquiry that you track in Salesforce, or mark a lead as successful in Pipedrive when you get a contract signed through DocuSign (while uploading the signed document to Box and sending a message on Slack), you can do that on Claris Connect. But to use connectors or templates as a developer or business user, you have to be paying for a Claris Connect subscription (which isn’t included in the price of FileMaker, even if you’re buying a subscription and cloud hosting rather than a standalone licence).

You can now build FileMaker apps in the browser using the FileMaker Cloud service (the alternative to running FileMaker Server yourself or through a hosting provider, with regions in Ireland and Frankfurt joining the existing US and Japanese regions). One feature there that we’d love to see come into the desktop FileMaker Pro environment is that when you drag out a field or other object to place it on the layout, other objects automatically move out of the way. Here’s a comparison between FileMaker Server and FileMaker Cloud.

If you’re sticking with FileMaker Server to host your apps, that will soon be available on Linux as well as Windows and Mac, which will significantly increase the number of providers that can offer FileMaker hosting (still a rather specialist service).

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FileMaker builds in support for a handful of cloud APIs, but two-way JavaScript integration opens up many more possibilities.

Image: Mary Branscombe / ZDNet

There are a handful of minor improvements to the FileMaker Pro authoring tool on Windows and Mac that fix things like having apps built in FileMaker support dark mode support on macOS, formatting fields in scientific notation and the ability to list the total number of pages in a report. On an equally minor note, there are still some rather antiquated things about FileMaker Pro on Windows: it wants to put an icon in the Quick Launch panel — a Windows XP feature that you have to explicitly turn on in modern versions of Windows, and a sign that Claris is using an elderly tool to create its installer. Windows users still have to install Bonjour as well, because that’s what FileMaker uses to find other FileMaker systems on your network; you can’t skip that even if all your other FileMaker systems are in the cloud.

SEE: An IT pro’s guide to robotic process automation (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

More annoying is that the JavaScript support on Windows means sticking with Internet Explorer as a browser. Claris plans to move to Edge, but that’s something many organisations won’t want to wait long for. You’ll also need to check existing scripts that check for FileMaker versions: what used to be called FileMaker Pro Advanced is now, sensibly, just FileMaker Pro.

Going mobile

The improvements in the WebDirect client for use on Android, or any device with a browser, are fairly modest (letting you use the card UI from FileMaker 16 in web apps), but the FileMaker Go client that runs FileMaker apps on iOS continues to take advantage of Apple hardware features. The new NFC support for reading information from NFC tags will get a lot of use in apps built for retail and event management, but it also makes FileMaker more relevant for IoT development. FileMaker Go apps can now be started from Siri shortcuts that can open an app and run a script; it makes sense for that to be iOS-specific, but NFC is available much more widely. The problem is that while Chromium supports NFC on Android, there isn’t a cross-browser NFC API.

FileMaker apps running on iOS and macOS can use machine learning like image classification, object detection, recommendation and even custom models built with CoreML in scripts. That’s intended to be simple enough for low-code users, but if you want to use JavaScript and a cloud machine-learning API that will work on other devices, that’s something that an experienced developer will need to build (either directly into the app or by creating an add-on for the marketplace).

You could create powerful small-business apps where staff at a dry cleaners or a garage could ask Siri to take a photograph of a product that a customer brings in for repair or cleaning, use image recognition to find out what it is, give an estimate or book in the job and generate the invoice. Even with the templates and connectors on Claris Connect, that’s going to take a certain amount of expertise to get right, though.

Open with an Apple slant

FileMaker has always been a fast option for business app development, and while it has lacked the richness of the JavaScript development ecosystem, it’s benefitted from a powerful but very usable developer environment. JavaScript integration brings that richness to what FileMaker apps can do without adding more complexity to the developer experience, the way switching to just building web apps would.

FileMaker 19 is a significant step forward towards an open development platform adding strong integration with JavaScript, cloud APIs and much broader hosting options. If you’re upgrading to take advantage of that, this is probably the time to switch to a subscription to get new features as Claris moves from annual releases to a more SaaS model.

But while prioritising iOS features makes sense for an Apple subsidiary, it may frustrate developers with customers who want the same features on all their devices. We look forward to Claris continuing to invest in ReactNative and the WebDirect client for cross-platform mobile apps, which the company tells us is its plan to improve mobile development beyond iOS (although it doesn’t rule out launching an Android client if customer demand is there).

Another drawback may be the confusing pricing options, with subscriptions for both FileMaker itself and the Claris Connect service needed to use connectors and run cloud workflows. FileMaker developers will be happy to get extra functionality in a familiar environment instead of transitioning to building web apps in new tools, but convincing their customers to pay subscriptions to run the apps they build may prove challenging.

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