Fresh news and solutions for small business. By Ron Seybold

Filemaker 11 unfurls new snapshots of business

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Filemaker 11 makes it easier than ever to take business data and create a snapshot of your information to help plan. It's also got dynamic links to auto-update such graphics

The canvas of the Filemaker database is wide and rich for Mac business users, an enduring data capture resource that looks even more vivid in the newest release of this tool. Filemaker 11 rolls out today with a big palette of charting and graphics shortcuts, the kind of built-in prowess that makes a great case for using the $299 solution instead of an Excel spreadsheet.

If it feels crude¬† to substitute a spreadsheet for a database, Filemaker’s Product Group Manager Rick Kalman says research shows otherwise. About 40 percent of the 15 million copies of Filemaker have been used by small business or small groups within larger companies. Already familar with Microsoft’s iconic spreadsheet, they press Excel into record-keeping of business inventory, sales or contacts. In doing so they limit the power of seeing their business portraits from every aspect.

The primary competition for us is Excel spreadsheets and paper, frankly,” Kalman said, “and that’s a pretty good target.” The features run well beyond the Excel hints and assistants that suggest you might be managing a list. And Filemaker 11 adds a feature that’s fast-becoming a Mac software standard: the Quick Search window in the top right of many programs, such as nearly every browser.

There's nothing like this in Excel, and the new Filemaker includes templates to go to work immediately with a professional-class database

Graphics stood out in the one-hour demo that Kalman led us through about a week ago. The wholly-owned subsidiary of Apple is among the best of Apple’s captive partners at creating tools ready for businesses, and the Filemaker 11 is ready to show off a company’s products, people in client databases or internal staff and contractors, even a new feature that interacts with Twitter to push in-progress photo updates for custom designs like guitars or Web sites or illustrations. But the concept of pictures extends beyond the fresh graphics tools in Filemaker 11. A new Snapshot link “flags a specific set of records at a point in time, preserving the same layout, view and sort order. Any changes made to the file are automatically updated in the database. This Snapshot Link file can be emailed to anyone who has FileMaker Pro 11 for easy collaboration.” That means that changes to you data can automatically be updated in a collegue or client’s office if they have Filemaker Pro 11 at hand.

Filemaker 11 arrives at the latest stop in a 26-year line of development for the software that started in 1984 as Nutshell, created for the PC DOS marketplace. Before long the software was shaped into the Mac’s premier database tool and delivered to both PC and Mac users. Microsoft’s Access is a worthy competitor on the Windows side, but some small businesses don’t consider their information repositories to be the most valuable asset that doesn’t clock in or report on a time sheet. It’s short sighted, and Filemaker 11 goes an impressive step to meet these customers more than halfway.

The software has a starter-marriage cousin, Bento 3, which has gotten rave reviews and even enjoys an iPhone app to bring its data into the mobile world. But while Bento data moves into Filemaker easily, the transfer of Excel spreadsheets to get started in Filemaker 11 is a new feature.

Users who have extensive databases in Filemaker formats would be well-served to read through the product’s documentation to make a clean transfer that will preserve all your layouts and data fields. Import features for Filemaker databases go right up to Filemaker 11, but you’ll want to have an FP7 format of your database (used by Filemaker 7-11) ready for import. Filemaker is reaching back to the Version 8 and 9 customers with upgrade packages.

There are 31 database Starter Solutions in the new Filemaker 11, many designed for the business user

A starter solution for invoices helps you take advantage of the data-ready layouts and databases included with the software. A quick-start screen is also new, one of the many features Filemaker has added to get a business rolling quickly with an ample array of data tracking solutions. Populating these databases with existing data gets to be a matter of looking over their data fields and managing the match-up of your data with these fields. This data-match process still needs some work for the average user. Excel imports can only be done if they’re the latest XSLX format, so if your Excel is 2004 or older, you’ve got file conversion to consider, or an upgrade to a newer version of the spreadsheet.

Of such details are transitions to Filemaker from spreadsheets made. There’s enough goodness in this new version to justify an upgrade from 8, 9 or 10 (the older software must be upgraded by Sept. 23 to qualify for the discounted price.) If you’ve bought Filemaker 10 since Feb. 7, your Filemaker 11 upgrade will be free.

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