FileMaker & Process Tracker
As inventing is a long and expensive process where the potential rewards are far in the future (if ever), it's no way to make a living, especially at the start.

Having immediately latched on to the Mac when it was launched in the UK in 1985, I welcomed the introduction of FileMaker to the platform not long after and have used it and other database programs to create solutions for my clients.

I have worked for the UK Automobile Association where FileMaker databases were used in the preparation of data for their multimedia CD titles, Beaumont and Son, a London-based aviation legal practice as a company-wide contacts system and at Campers and Nicholsons, an international yacht broker for whom I have built databases to manage their multimedia assets, yacht inventories, contacts and advertising placements.

I have scaled down my database development now that the inventions are beginning to provide some income but I have developed some solutions for my personal use which others might find useful.

I also have some comments about what FileMaker currently lacks (as of v 5.0) here.

Process Tracker

I often have to apply a series of transformations to a list of files or a process to a batch of parts and it can become unwieldy to track what action has been applied to which item. I became dissatisfied with using handwritten notes, bending spreadsheets to the task or trying to use complex project management software. This FileMaker 5 solution is my approach to this problem.

You DO need to have the FileMaker 5 or later application to run this solution but you need know nothing about FileMaker to use it. Full documentation is provided to get you going.

Process Tracker's home layout:

Process Tracker treats each item to be processed as a separate record and allows 4 processes to be tracked in a very visual way. All the graphical elements can be chosen by the user.


As you can see from the above screenshot, there are a list of files to which four actions are being applied. The completion of an action is recorded by clicking in the appropriate column to leave a graphical marker. A serial number, time and date stamp are applied to each new record automatically. A field is available for making comments.

Each column can behave either as an accumulator or as a placeholder depending on a preference setting.

The record highlighted in pink matches a set of criteria chosen in the setup and this indication will appear for each instance. This can be useful as an indication of progress or some error condition.

Predefined sorts head each column and data can be imported from a wide variety of file formats such as tab and comma-delimited, FileMaker, SYLK and Excel, among others.

A layout is provided to search the database on every field. Queries are by example on forms that look like the data display. Complex queries can be built with multiple find requests.

Above is the Setup layout which allows you to configure various behaviours such as the additive/exclusive mode of the columns, The graphical markers to appear in each column, which summary data is to be displayed for each column and other settings.

You can use the supplied graphic elements for the markers and highlights or use alternatives bundled with the solution or your own custom images in the Preferences layout. All common graphic file formats are supported.

Data can be printed on pre-built layouts and exported in all common file formats including tab and comma-delimited, FileMaker, SYLK and HTML tables, among others.

The solution comes with full documentation linked in to the database itself, additional graphics for markers and highlights and example files.

This database is being offered as a beta version prior to being released as shareware at some time in the future. Prospective beta testers should contact me describing your interest at joel (at) inventors-emporium dot co dot uk and I will send you the current version and test notes.

Anyone offering suggestions that are incorporated into the 1.0 release will be deemed to have a free license for the life of the product.

FileMaker could be better...

I like FileMaker for it's excellent layout tools and the ease with which a polished solution can be developed which is still manageable for the user to maintain.

However I have some criticisms of how FileMaker, Inc. are failing to make very basic corrections to problems the application has had for a long time and which I feel would greatly expand the uses to which it could be put, namely:

1. Highlight of found strings
FileMaker is a database that cannot show you what it has found.

If one attempts to use FileMaker for storing lengthy texts, all FileMaker can do is display the record in which the found string is hiding but cannot actually highlight the found string in the text field itself.

To ask a user to read through the text manually to find the occurrences and therefore judge the relevance of the found record is clearly unacceptable and users tell me this repeatedly. The various techniques by which the found string can be highlighted in a calculation field are grotesque and out of character with the polish evident in the rest of the application.

Why this is bad
A huge range of applications that involve document management of all kinds are out of bounds for FileMaker not because it's slow or has inadequate support for text or has poor text search algorithms but because it cannot scroll to and highlight what it has found. To have to specify another database engine for these document management solutions for so basic a failing seems perverse.

Why fixing it would be good
To make this functionality available would greatly reinforce the use of FileMaker as a repository of textual data and make an ideal reference library manager - a fast growing demand from users, especially for email.

Possible solutions
Clearly the underlying mechanism for highlighting text already exists - spell checking has done this for a long time. What is needed is to link this with the Find functionality.

1. Use of a global field to hold the search string which is then highlighted in the text field where ever it occurs so the user need only scroll the field to see the found instances.

2. Programmatic access to the text highlighting mechanism allowing for multiple, discontinuous selections/highlights to be made in a text field. Scrolling a field to the appropriate point also required.

3. Programmatic ability to change the text, style or colour attributes for multiple, discontinuous selections.

2. Inline graphics in text fields.
FileMaker cannot realistically be used for the storage of any illustrated document.

Splitting out graphics into separate container fields loses the connection with the text necessary for its comprehension. There is also the extra work in editing the document and the question of how many containers will be required and how to intelligently link to them.

Why this is bad
FileMaker cannot be recommended for applications such as instruction manuals, web archives, document management or storage of scientific and technical articles because of the lack of support for inline graphics.

MacWrite 1.0 of 15 years ago and much shareware since has supported this kind of object but FileMaker in its 5th iteration cannot? Yet another group of users and developers will look elsewhere for their database solution.

Why fixing it would be good
FileMaker could be recommended for all those uses stated above to which users and developers would like to put it but currently cannot.

Possible Solutions
Create a new field type that supports binary objects with two types of embeddable items, one of which is graphics (PICT/BMP/GIF/JPG) and a second, described below in 3.

3. Embedded file alias records
FileMaker is the ideal repository for managing metadata but it has no mechanism for linking to other files.
Any kind of document management solution needs to be able to point to other documents and hold references to them.

Why this is bad
FileMaker is excluded from these kind of solutions completely in an environment (on the Mac) where there are few existing solutions and where it would have little competition.

Why fixing it would be good
FileMaker would embrace a market to which it currently has no access whatever. Developers can create a whole new range of solutions without having to step away from FileMaker.
The range of options for applying FileMaker in new areas would be huge and enable a solution that would stand almost unopposed. As standalone, run-time applications the solutions could be formidable.

Possible Solutions
By using the same binary object for embedding inline graphics, the mechanism could allow the drag and drop of icons into the field which would then display them as clickable links, the characteristics of which could be set as appropriate. By this addition, FileMaker becomes the primary means of archiving and managing data - system-wide.

4. Maintaining text scroll position
It's not possible to exit a text field without it reverting to the top of the field. This makes any text-rich database very hard for a user to manage, whether just reading, comparing texts or dragging data into fields. A good user interface rule is to preserve those things that the user has changed - the point of interest in a text field is an important spatial reference.

Possible Solutions
Allow nominated text fields to preserve the scroll position on exit.

By the addition of the features I have outlined above, FileMaker could capture markets that are currently denied it by enabling solutions that would deeply change the nature of how it is perceived and applied.

It seems that FileMaker, Inc. are losing their grip on what a database is actually for by concentrating only on the tasks and not on the goals.

Do you agree?

FileMaker is a registered trademark of FileMaker, Inc.

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