How to make mobile apps with FileMaker 15

The venerable database application has become a popular tool for creating your own business apps. Now you can use those apps wherever you go.

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flickr/Tim Malabuyo

The business world is full of inventories, catalogs and other lists that sit in spreadsheets or databases that would be more useful if you could take them out of the office. With FileMaker Go and FileMaker WebDirect, you can.

FileMaker has long been a way of creating database applications that combines powerful tools for professionals with an interface that’s no more complicated than Excel. You can connect to Oracle, SQL -- including PostgresSQL and DB2 -- ODBC and XML data, create workflow and business logic, set up scripts and do data validation and conditional formatting.

“Over the years, FileMaker has gone from a single user list manager to a full-fledged business environment,” says Andrew LeCates of FileMaker, Inc. “Since we introduced support for iPhone and iPad, the impact of allowing anyone to build custom apps has been significant. It's about being a custom business app development platform for teams, end-users and what we call citizen developers.”

That’s not about helping employees work around official processes, he points out, but about acknowledging that the formal processes don’t cover everything. “Rigid technology is essential in helping steer the ship but getting work done with custom workflow allows your employees to be more productive and your business to be more competitive.”

A real iOS app

FileMaker 15 adds new iOS features like 3D Touch, iBeacon and Touch ID in FileMaker Go (available for free on the App Store), and adds support for smartphone browsers in WebDirect.

Supporting the native APIs is what makes FileMaker Go popular, LeCates believes. “When we took the container fields that you could use for images and movies and other blobs of data in FileMaker and added the functionality so you could use them to capture a signature in your app on an iPad, with nothing to do but checking a box in FileMaker, we had probably the fastest uptake of any single feature we’ve ever released.”

“We added GPS support when that came to iOS, so users could attach custom workflows and build apps for workers on delivery trucks,” he says. There’s also support for barcode scanning with the camera, so the same app can read delivery labels and send receipts.

Supporting Touch ID was a common customer request. “Now you can log in, not just to the FileMaker Go app on the device but to the custom app you’ve written in FileMaker,” LeCates says. This gives businesses an extra level of control without adding inconvenience for users. FileMaker Go now masks passwords as you type them in, which was another feature customers were asking for, and there’s better SSL support — including warnings when you connect to a site with an invalid security certificate and support for a wider range of certificates, especially those used in educational organizations. There’s also a graphical option for adding certificates to apps (in previous versions that meant working with the command line).

FileMaker Go also supports the new app extensions in iOS, which he says is a natural fit. “To help businesses manage their workflow, we need to stitch together multiple technologies. On the desktop we’ve always done that by integrating data from SQL sources and local files. On iOS you get the same benefit with app extensions.”

FileMaker Go apps can now use iBeacons, which he notes have been harder for small and mid-size companies to adopt but could be useful beyond the retail tracking that larger stores have already experimented with. “We think local presence is going to be an interesting area, and I’m bullish about the creativity of smaller organizations and what they’ll be able to do with it.”

LeCates suggests iBeacons could work with a custom app to guide you around a product showroom or give you a guided audio tour in a museum where you don’t have to take the same route as everyone else, or they could track users and trainers moving between exercise stations at a gym.

WebDirect, which lets you run FileMaker apps in a web browser, is the FileMaker solution for Android, Windows and other non-iOS devices. Previous versions had HTML5 support that was ready for tablet browsers, “but we weren’t yet ready for phones,” LeCates says. With FileMaker 15, WebDirect has responsive layout that resizes your apps to fit on the phone screen that’s validated for Chrome 48 and onwards on Android 5.x and 6.x and Mobile Safari 9.x on iOS 9.3, as well as for Safari 9, IE 11 and Edge 25 — that means it will work on Windows 8 tablets and likely Windows 10 Mobile phones, although FileMaker doesn’t guarantee the layout on Windows phones. LeCates also says WebDirect has been extensively rewritten to improve performance on smaller devices.

There are a number of options for publishing FileMaker databases to mobile devices. For iOS, that can be as basic as exporting and mailing the records back and forth, but to get an encrypted connection for editing, you need FileMaker Server to publish the database to FileMaker Go. For WebDirect you can use the web publishing option in FileMaker, but if you want users to be able to edit rather than just view in your app you’ll need a hosting provider that supports FileMaker hosting.

That gives you the option of keeping things simple (which matches the way FileMaker lets users build an app without needing to be a database expert) or creating a more sophisticated way of distributing your database, which larger businesses will certainly want.

What’s missing is any kind of cloud service that would simplify the publishing stage so that business groups could comfortably manage that on their own, which seems a strange omission in 2016. LeCates would only say, “There are numerous cloud hosting firms today. At the same time, we recognize that more and more of our customers are looking for cloud hosting of FileMaker databases.”  

You also don’t get the same options as Microsoft’s PowerApps or Salesforce Lightning to make apps that connect to other services directly in the cloud. But, by the same token, you don’t have to manage cloud accounts or pay on-going subscriptions.

Building apps with FileMaker is more like building database applications with Microsoft Access, only FileMaker is more approachable for business users. If you’re expecting business teams to pick up tools like this to make their own apps — or if you’re concerned about them doing that — think about how to enable and control access to the data sources they’ll want to work with.

Even without a cloud option, FileMaker Go and WebDirect are very flexible solutions for getting the mobile apps many business users need without the usual complexity of mobile development.

This story, "How to make mobile apps with FileMaker 15" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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