Dinosaurs trapped in another age: My bizarre FileMaker briefing

There are ways to articulate a vision of the future and ways to show that you're trapped in the past. FileMaker gave me a good example of the latter in a recent analyst briefing

Peter Rivera, Flickr (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

Back in the distant past (about 20 years ago), I became involved with a small manufacturing business that had to make do with the rudimentary business software offerings that existed at the time. Like other small businesses, our options consisted of either adopting the existing monolithic "suites" or using paper-based solutions. There was one other solution, the creation of a fully custom solution using a database offering such as FileMaker. Indeed, a related company had done just that and I can well recall the smug grins from the executives there who had spent hundreds of hours custom building a solution for their business on top of FileMaker.

The solution they created was, at the time, exemplar for software customization. It met the highly specific needs of their business to a tee. Fast forward to today, however, and that same business has been forced to rip out the entire FileMaker solution in order to implement something that is actually connected, truly mobile ready and flexible. More about those attributes later.

So given my history, I was interested when approached by FileMaker (now owned, incidentally, by Apple) to cover their 30th anniversary and, as they put it, "30 years of amazing solutions."

For those unaware, FileMaker is a cross-platform relational database application. It integrates a database engine with a graphical user interface and security features, allowing users to modify the database by dragging new elements into layouts, screens or forms. Essentially, it is a great tool to build distinct business applications without having any advanced development skills.

Which is fine as far as it goes, but FileMaker started our briefing by saying that they're not a database, but rather that they are a platform for integrating applications and creating custom applications and workflows to meet a business' specific needs.

To deliver that "platform" stuff, FileMaker has, in recent years innovated beyond the simple client-side database of the past. It now has a mobile solution, FileMaker Go, which allows users to build user interfaces that include offline access on iOS devices. FileMaker is all about democratizing the development process -- building applications is all about drag and drop. Anyone can create a FileMaker application, regardless of their development experience. So what's not to like, right?

Not so fast. On the call, I was intrigued by FileMaker's assertion that it was all about building applications that filled out workflow requirements between SaaS apps and the end users. Rather than simply a blank canvas of a database, FileMaker talks about being a place to augment the plethora of SaaS apps that exist.

Which sounded great, until I questioned the spokesperson on the integrations that FileMaker includes out of the box. Their response was that FileMaker doesn't actually include any integrations -- customers need to build them all from scratch. It renders that proposition about closing the gap between SaaS and end users as somewhat redundant. It also calls into question the FileMaker assertion about delivering agility -- if every single user needs to create their own integrations, any agility created by the platform is rapidly lost by having to create the plumbing underneath it.

Hmm. I pointed out the amazing value that lightweight integration services such as If This Then That or Zapier bring to small businesses. These services, if you haven't come across them, allow you to use their existing integrations (with, it seems, is every application under the sun) and build small workflow elements -- something life "if I post a new image to Flickr, also send a tweet of the picture and email the image to a specific account. Oh, and at the same time, copy the image to my archive solution." I put it to the FileMaker representative that this is what a true platform looks like. His response was that what he's heard back from developers is that Zapier (et al) is very hard to use and there is a massive barrier to entry with those tools.

On the contrary, I am the least technical user I know, with no development skills beyond BASIC 30 years ago and I can set up a Zapier or IFTTT "recipe" in about 15 seconds. Either these FileMaker people are clueless to the utility that competing solutions bring, or they're busy riding a wave of misinformation and trying to keep a customer-base on side in the face of disruption.

The other area FileMaker wanted to talk to me about was mobile. As we all know, mobile applications are increasingly becoming the most critical way to deliver services to users. Given that FileMaker is a subsidiary of Apple, it was logical to expect that the product would have much to offer in terms of mobile enablement. It was explained to me about FileMaker Go, a mobile add-on to the FileMaker solution that allows specific applications to be pushed through to end devices. But, and this is a critical flaw, FileMaker Go is an iOS-only offering, anyone using Android (or Windows Mobile, or BlackBerry, or Ubuntu mobile) has to rely on browser-based applications.

As such, FileMaker's mobile offerings are a Frankenstein combination of fully native (for iOS) and cross-platform (for everyone else). This creates real issues since the benefit of native applications is that they can leverage all the extra APIs from device-specific sensors and features on a phone. By only offering this to iOS customers, FileMaker creates a confused and confusing message.

I then dug into FileMaker's approach to different form factors -- is FileMaker responsive in that it can deliver a specific application to different devices? Seeming somewhat confused about what responsive design means, the spokesperson told me that FileMaker can interrogate a call from a mobile device and deliver a specific front end depending on what device is calling it. This front end relies on the same schema and scripts on the back end but necessitates specific user interfaces to be built. This isn't responsive to me -- a modern and flexible approach towards a platform would automatically help to generate layouts that are reactive to the different form factors using it. It wouldn't force developers to create those specific interfaces themselves.

True, different form factors may well have different requirements in terms of layouts and functionality, but I still balk at the idea of forcing developers and users to second guess every different combination and permutation of devices that will be accessing their solutions.

The final criticism I have (well, there's more but there came a point at which I metaphorically blacked out from literally banging my head against my desk during the briefing) is with the models that FielMaker uses to create apps. While I appreciate the fact that its code-less paradigm means that anyone can create an application, it creates a situation where applications built on FileMaker generally display a simplicity, a blandness and an appallingly boring and unappealing UI that belies the beauty of the devices they're being used upon. Steve Jobs is likely spinning in his grave while looking at what FileMaker users create. While Apple's head of everything beautiful, Jony Ives, sweats blood over the finest of details on the company's hardware and software, the FileMaker division allows people to build solutions that look like they were created by a 4th grader.

I've been horribly critical in this article I know, and that criticism perhaps doesn't pay FileMaker enough respect for the decades that it has allowed businesses to create their own solutions. But we live in a very different world from back then. Mobile first is key, integrating with a plethora of different cloud solutions is table stakes, delivering offerings no matter what the platform or form factor an end-user will utilize is non-negotiable. FileMaker is, in my opinion, a perfect example of a vendor trapped in a previous age and increasingly rendered obsolete by it.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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