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Claris launches the last-ever annual FileMaker Pro release

FileMaker Pro 19 marks the final time that Claris's venerable database tool will see annual updates. AppleInsider examines the new version, as it moves to rolling releases.

Over the last several years, Claris has been repositioning its longstanding FileMaker Pro app. It's still the same software for making what people who've used it for decades refer to as database solutions. However, today that idea of bespoke tools that users can make and adapt is indistinguishable from what are now more commonly called apps.

So without actually changing how FileMaker Pro worked, or quite what it did, Claris has been increasingly erasing the word "database" and inserting the word "app" instead. It's far from unreasonable, as all of the power of the software remains, and the solutions that can be created in it can be apps in every sense of the word.

You've always been able to use FileMaker Pro to make a client management solution for your staff's desktop Macs and PCs. More recently, you've been able to make mobile apps for iPads, too, and all using the same software.

While FileMaker Pro 19 does add significant new features, the greater part of the release is about cementing this semantic break from the past — and to have the product make more sense to new users who are developing apps.

The most immediately obvious changes for old hands are apparent as soon as you download the app. Claris may have done away with the different regular and advanced editions of the app some versions ago, but it continued to call it FileMaker Pro Advanced. This is has now gone, though, and it's solely called FileMaker Pro.

Then rather than a folder that contains the software plus a collection of extensions, resources and PDFs, you now solely get the app as a single file. Perhaps fittingly, as the old folder has gone, so the app has dropped its extraordinarily familiar and longstanding icon of a folder.

FileMaker Pro 19's icon is now the same as that of all products from Claris, though in an Adobe-like way, each is assigned different colors. FileMaker Pro is blue, for instance, and Claris Connect is green. Speaking of Claris Connect, that new service for linking apps Zapier- or IFTTT-like, is more prominently integrated into FileMaker Pro. Where the previous version presented a Learn section, FileMaker Pro 19 takes that and inserts it into a new Resources section.

This is chiefly a way of embedding the Claris Connect service inside the app, but the company has also used it as a way to bring third-party options to users, too. Alongside the Learn section's familiar tutorials, and the new Connect link, this Resources section offer quick access to a marketplace of third-party apps and solutions.

This is how most users see FileMaker Pro - not as a tool they're developing in, but as a finished app. (Source: Claris)

Plus it now makes finding FileMaker Pro developers easier with its new Find a Partner feature. Since few people who aren't already developers will open this section, its usefulness may not be all that great.

But after decades of use, FileMaker Pro has grown such a community of developers that there will always be someone who knows what you need to know. And while this will hopefully help share employment around, the community is such that you're as likely to find experts offering helpful advice as they are to wave a rate card at you.

Claris is clearly keen to continue this as it singles out FileMaker Pro 19's ability to let users create what it calls shareable add-ons. These are specifically to sell in the Claris Marketplace and overall concept is that FileMaker Pro 19 and Claris Connect are to be a comprehensive ecosystem.

The aim is to grow that ecosystem as widely and as easily as possible. Claris has recently claimed that interest in FileMaker Pro has grown hugely as companies needed new apps and solutions because of working changes caused by the coronavirus.

In the short time we got to test out FileMaker Pro 19 we found no clear updates or alterations to the core features. Apart from small cosmetic changes, this version is going to be immediately familiar to existing users — and of course will run existing solutions or apps immediately.

Beyond the familiar, though, this edition does add more options to improve apps, or to just have a very good time exploring. Chief amongst these is the way that users can leverage Apple's Core ML machine learning models.

It has been possible to do at least some of that through Python scripting and third-party add-ons, but now Claris is emphasizing how native ML support means a user's apps can take advantage of image object detection. FileMaker Pro 19 even exposes ML tools for sentiment analysis - the ability to automatically detect whether a passage of text is positive or negative, for instance - to users.

Similarly, FileMaker Pro 19 offers greater Javascript support, with the intention that users will increasingly be able to develop or buy modules that drop into their app solutions. So much of this release is about connecting FileMaker Pro 19 to extra technologies, and particularly Apple ones such as Siri Shortcuts.

You've always been able to add scripts like this, but now you can drag and drop Javascript elements into your app solution

What we had a brief time to test was the Mac version of FileMaker Pro 19 and, as always, there is a Windows release that is identical. The versions appear identical, down to the pixel, and the aim has always been that users could move database solutions between the two.

That presumably cannot happen now if a user does exploit Apple-specific technology, but this is unlikely to be any kind of Mac bias on the part of Apple-owned Claris. Rather, it's more likely to be a nod to iOS and the fact that there's no clear equivalent within Windows tablets.

Claris is clearly right to focus on app development, and it seems right that iOS be a big part of that. It's also good, though, that the decades of database development behind it remain as part of the product as ever.

That rebranding as an app development tool has been taking place steadily over several years, and it's seemed that at the same time FileMaker Pro has been steadily heading toward a subscription model. You've long been able to buy site licences and ones that renew, but after last year's release simplified pricing, this year's continues the move away from annual purchases.

We're still going to get FileMaker Pro on the Mac, and the PC, and it is still going to be developed. What's perhaps also going to happen, though, is that the product will move away from the desktop. In version 19, Claris is already championing the ability to develop apps or databases entirely in the cloud, for instance.

Claris was famously called FileMaker, Inc, until its recent rebrand. The software's dropping of its Advanced name — even as it retained all the Advanced functionality — then the dropping of annual releases, it makes us wonder just how different the future of FileMaker is going to be.

For now, though, FileMaker Pro 19 is an exceptional tool for the company needing to make bespoke tools for its staff. If you're an existing version 18 user, there's no absolute requirement to upgrade, but the new integrations with Claris Connect, Core ML, and so on, do offer greater possibilities for developers.

That's certainly true but it's perhaps most appealing if you're already part of a large team and using the site licence version. If you're a one man or woman band who makes their living designing solutions for different clients, it's a bigger decision.

Up to now, you've had a capital outlay of a few hundred dollars every year — or, more likely, every two and three years as you skip some updates. Step onto the FileMaker Pro 19 subscription and its minimum of $19 per month means $228 every year. That is a licence for up to 10 users, but that's irrelevant if you're an individual developer.

Developers control every pixel of their app, from colors to how calculated variables are displayed

Whatever size developer you are, if you currently have, say, FileMaker Pro 18 or even 17, you aren't throwing that away. You could downgrade back to these older versions later. But you won't.

You won't because then you wouldn't be able to continue developing with the new tools. Claris can easily make the case that FileMaker Pro is a serious tool for serious companies, but if you develop with it, you also know that it is profoundly absorbing and even fun.

You will find reasons to use the new tools just because they are there and they're powerful. And this is how you get hooked.

Previously, there has been one other way that new users got brought in to the community and became addicts. It's also one way that presumably and actually rather sadly, is surely now over. In what was practically a tradition, Claris used to regularly offer a deal where when you buy FileMaker Pro for yourself, you get an entirely free copy for someone else.

FileMaker Pro 19 is now available direct from Claris and it costs from $19 per month for up to 10 users.

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Information regarding the early history of FileMaker is adapted from an interview with Spec Bowers by Glenn C. Koenig. Glenn is a FileMaker developer and generalist who lives and works in Arlington, Massachusetts. His business is Dancing-Data. Recent history is written from my knowledge of the industry.

The rolodexes from FileMaker 1.0, FileMaker Plus, FileMaker Pro 1.0, FileMaker Pro 5.5, FileMaker Pro 7.0 and FileMaker Pro 15.


The history of FileMaker dates back to the early 1980s with four people who originally worked at Wang Laboratories. Spec Bowers, Alan Albert, Dan Chadwick and Jega Arulpragasam wanted to develop new products but the Wang Labs didn’t foster this type of creativity with their political culture. This is quite different from the culture of most technology companies these days, which encourage or even require creativity.

Spec and Dan attended a computer conference. In those days, computer conferences for businesses concentrated on mini computers and larger. Outside the hall there was a tent that had a small section devoted to PCs. They looked around and saw that a number of other companies were already working on word processing products. They concluded that it would be too hard to break into that market.

So they looked at database software. In their opinion, the existing databases were just awful. dBase was one of them. The user interface was a prompt that was a single dot at the left edge of the screen. You had to know all the commands and type them in correctly to do anything. The records were all fixed format, with fields of fixed length and type. You had to decide everything ahead of time and once you started entering data, the design of your database was essentially frozen in place. You couldn't change anything after that.

They knew what a good user interface looked like from working at Wang, so they decided to make something better and formed Nashoba Systems. It started out in their own homes. Before long, they rented space in a building in Concord, Massachusetts.

Spec Bowers came up with the initial design concepts:

- fields are variable length, you can enter as much data as you want

- every word in every field is indexed

- you can add fields at any time or delete them

- you can display your data in different layouts

- the user interface would be menu driven (a mouse came later)

- it would have good performance on even very large databases

- initially, it would support date, number, text, and calculation field types

Those were the basic important characteristics. The first product was named "Nutshell." They developed it and marketed it through a company called "Leading Edge". Leading Edge marketed PC clones and software at the time.


Soon after they had Nutshell on the market, the Macintosh was introduced. But Leading Edge refused to sell to the Macintosh market so when Nashoba developed a version for the Macintosh, they had to use a different name. They came up with FileMaker. People who saw FileMaker later on would say "this looks a lot like Nutshell," but because of the different name, most people didn't know that it was essentially the same product.

They were close to finishing FileMaker when suddenly Microsoft released Microsoft File. It looked pretty good, so they were nervous. But they went ahead and released FileMaker in 1985. Microsoft started out being the big seller. Within a year, FileMaker was neck and neck. After 2 more years, FileMaker outsold MS File and Microsoft took their product off the market. Somehow the ordinary person looked at the products and saw the difference.

FileMaker 1.0 had calculation fields but no functions, just arithmetical operators. Only one file could be opened at a time!


FileMaker started to do well right from the beginning because of good design and marketing and almost no other competition on the Mac side, whereas Leading Edge didn't market Nutshell very well. The competition on the PC side was dBase, PFS (which was the number 1 or 2 publisher at the time - PFS: Word, PFS: File PFS: Numbers, etc.), and several established products.

A company called Forethought marketed FileMaker. They had a great relationship with Forethought, even though it started out slowly. There were times when both Nashoba and Forethought went through financial difficulties. So Jega came up with an idea when it looked like Forethought was in big trouble. They changed the agreement for publishing to be more like a "partnership" in a way. It succeeded and they went on to be the best selling database. Spec thinks that this ought to be a lesson to teach at Harvard Business School.

They decided to track the names of Macintosh products when naming successive versions of FileMaker. When Apple came out with the Mac Plus, they named the next version "FileMaker Plus." When Apple introduced the Mac II, they called it "FileMaker II."


FileMaker Plus saw the debut of the first scripting. It was a single dialog with check boxes to automate reports. It was rudimentary compared to the prowess of scripting these days. Auto-Enter was also introduced and more than one file could be opened at the same time.


They were doing $6 million worth of business in 1986 or early 1987. Then Microsoft bought Forethought. Microsoft probably thought they were going to get the rights to market FileMaker in the deal (Microsoft has a history of trying to purchase FileMaker throughout the years, even when Claris owned it as subsidiary of Apple, Inc). Spec says that if they thought that, then they had awful lawyers. They got PowerPoint out of it, even though it hadn't much of a track record (even that category wasn't big yet). Perhaps Microsoft reasoned that Nashoba systems, a smaller company without a publisher, would have no place else to go. But Nashoba still had the rights to FileMaker.

So they had to decide what to do. Should they sell to Microsoft anyway? Perhaps find another publisher? Self publish? Microsoft offered them a royalty deal of $75,000 a month. But FileMaker was a #1 product, making $6 million a year, even without the Microsoft label. So Nashoba declined the offer. Eventually, they decided to self publish.

Of course, the product would be off the market for awhile while they geared up. It was kind of scary. They hired some of the marketing people from Forethought. Based on their previous contract with Forethought, Nashoba only had rights to the software itself, not the documentation or the packaging! So after a big crash effort to write documentation from scratch, they had to put the rest of the product together. They decided to name it "FileMaker 4." They had to make decisions about all those little things you find in the package when you buy software. What about warranty reply cards? What kind of box? How about package design? License wording? It was pretty scary to do it all in such a short time frame. In spite of all this, it went back to #1 in the market.


Then a new problem arose. They had hired a marketing VP from Forethought who wanted to be president of the company. It was almost like extortion. The four co-founders were split 2-2 on the promotion. Eventually, one of the founders gave in and they promoted him. Within a few months the morale at Nashoba had gone downhill badly. At this time, all the marketing was still in California and the technical people were here in Massachusetts. The president and California office staff took control of the documentation, of the technical support, and everything else and told the founders to just be good little geeks and go write the code.

Back in Concord, their 13 employees dwindled down to 6 people within 6 months. Two of the original founders quit as well. Spec was one of them. But each founder still owned almost a 1/4th of the company each.

Shortly after that, Claris approached them and asked if they could buy FileMaker. By now, there was enough support among the founders to vote to do this. It turned out that Claris didn't like dealing with Nashoba's new President, either! He kept adding conditions to the deal. But the deal survived and Claris got the product.

The only thing that changed from FileMaker 4 (Nashoba) to FileMaker II (Claris) was the splash screen.


Claris began using conventional version numbers instead of varying the name of the product, so version 1.0 was Claris's first version. Since Apple wanted Claris to appear in the market as a stand alone software brand name, they were trying to make PC (DOS & Windows) versions of all their products, so it was under Claris that FileMaker was first expanded to run under Windows. Claris couldn't update Nutshell and sell that instead because they had no rights to it and by now FileMaker was a much more well recognized name.

Claris was a wholly owned subsidiary of Apple Computer. Later, Apple dissolved Claris and set up FileMaker, Inc. which had only two products: FileMaker and HomePage. The other products with the Claris name reverted to the Apple brand name (e.g. ClarisWorks became AppleWorks), were discontinued (such as MacWrite, MacDraw, etc.) or sold (Claris Organizer was sold to Palm). FileMaker, Inc. dropped support for HomePage a few years later and now just develops and markets FileMaker, FileMaker Go and FileMaker Server.

At the time of this interview, Spec remarked that some of the features they thought of 15 years ago still weren't in the product (as of version 6.0). Cross Tabs still weren't in the product. You still couldn't summarize horizontally and vertically at the same time. Also, if there was a way to import a ".pdf" file (Adobe Acrobat) into a layout, such as an IRS form, that would be great!

Spec and his colleagues were indeed visionaries and the reason why FileMaker is so strong today. Just looking at the screen shots on the previous pages, you can tell how many great features were always there from the beginning.

However, there are plenty of features Spec didn’t imagine in the current incarnation of FileMaker that have catapulted FileMaker into the most popular database in the world. With FileMaker Pro, FileMaker Advanced, FileMaker Server and FileMaker Go, there is no better database for rapid development than the FileMaker family of products. FileMaker Pro is the workhorse that can do it all from design to deployment. FileMaker Pro Advanced adds developer level features like a script debugger, encryption and Custom Functions. FileMaker Server allows for workgroup level scalability, automated backups and web technology for multi-user solutions. Rounding out the product line, FileMaker Go takes your FileMaker data remote on iPhones and iPads. Never before has FileMaker been so powerful!

I also want to shout out to another FileMaker visionary, Christopher Crim. Chris almost single handedly programmed some of your favorite features. He created Set Field and developed FileMaker Go during his sabbatical. To say he shaped FileMaker is an understatement. Thanks to Chris, features nobody even dreamed about are now a part of the core functionality of modern day FileMaker.

Author:
John Mark Osborne
jmo@filemakerpros.com
www.databasepros.com


Comments:

Jamey Key
  Great information and thank you for doing the research and documenting this for us. It is interesting that everything between your mention of FileMaker 4 and FileMaker II seems to have happened between June and August 1988. That must have been an exciting and anxious two months.
Douglas Alder
  Great article with a number of details I hadn't seen elsewhere. For those who like their history in a timeline format, click on my name.
William Porter
  Thanks for this excellent history, JMO! I was using HyperCard in the late '80s/early '90s and didn't pick up FileMaker until v2 in 1992 (partly because HyperCard was out or on the way out at the time). Enjoyed reading your review of what I missed!
Sarah
  Thank you for the response. I don't know Clay or Jon (yet), but am thankful FileMaker is investing in ongoing development!
Scott Cardais
  Thanks for this. The stories behind the companies are always interesting.
Sarah
  This is really interesting, thanks for taking the time to document this history! Where is Christopher Crim today? With FileMaker?
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