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FileMaker tries on new look for Mac

Version 6 will support both Windows XP and Mac OS X. The Mac version is also capable of retrieving images directly from digital cameras.

FileMaker will launch a new version of its database program on Tuesday, with one important new feature specifically available to Mac users.

Version 6 of FileMaker--software designed to let people create and share databases to manage a variety of information--will support both Windows XP and Mac OS X and packs new image management and capture features. The Mac version is also capable of retrieving images directly from digital cameras.

Other new features include enhanced Extensible Markup Language (XML) import and export capabilities, advanced querying without the need for Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) drivers and improved handling and managing of style sheets used in designing Web pages.

"The XML import-export is very important, particularly for all the corporate workgroups we serve," FileMaker President Dominique Goupil said on Monday. "The image capture is going to be very important for our Macintosh customers."

The focus on enhanced development tools for more tightly tying the database program to existing programs could be one of FileMaker's biggest assets in its battle with Microsoft's Access software, analysts said.

"We've got an awful lot of repositories of data, and the bigger issue should be integrating stuff together rather than adding yet another repository," Meta Group analyst David Folger said. "People have too many places to look for things and not enough places to integrate things. That is a great thing for them to be addressing."

The enhanced XML support and image handling features, and the development tools bolstering them, could be big assets for companies looking to squeeze the most out of what they already have.

"FileMaker comes in with a product that's easier to use and develop with than anything Microsoft can do with Access," Folger said. "IT, with this (economic) slump, cannot afford to do all the development projects that end users demand. The only thing they can do is give the end users some tools to do some of the stuff themselves."

Managing images using a database program appeals to universities and hospitals, but the process until now has been fairly arduous. "Now you can batch import all these files directly into your database, so it's a big productivity saver for a lot of customers that use images as part of their solution," said Chris Trytten, FileMaker's director of product marketing.

But Mac OS X users also get the bonus of being able to retrieve images directly from digital cameras. That process also imports information data, such as aperture settings, shutter speed, time of day or global positioning system (GPS) information.

"It's in talking to a digital camera that we took advantage of an (application programming interface) API in OS X," Trytten said

But the FileMaker product manager emphasized the company planned no other OS-specific features, either for XP or Mac OS X. "Our strategy has been to be cross-platform, so it's very rare we have a feature that's specific to one platform," Trytten said.

Besides the new image capabilities, the program has new importing-exporting features supporting XML, a cousin to hypertext markup language (HTML) used for writing Web pages.

"We've supported XML since 1999, but it was a pull operation," Trytten said. "For an external application or HTML page, it would give you XML data and it's up to you on the client side to do the style sheets and the transformation."

But with the new XML import-export features, the process is more automated. "So this gives a great deal of flexibility and access to information our customers have never had before," Trytten added.

Another important enhancement lets FileMaker access Microsoft's SQL Server without the need for ODBC drivers.

FileMaker 6 also better handles style sheets used in Web design.

"With the style sheets, you can have them local or remote, which means you can store style sheets on a central Web server and manage them there at a central location," Trytten said. "So you don't have any version (problems) or distribution headaches."

FileMaker 6 will be available as of Tuesday for $299, or $149 as an upgrade. FileMaker 6 Unlimited, the version typically used as part of serving up Web sites, also ships Tuesday. The company plans to launch a developer version in September for $499. FileMaker also makes a server-based product.

"There will be no file format change with this release," Trytten said. "What that means is that our current server will be able to serve these files."

FileMaker generally competes on the desktop connecting to larger server database products from IBM, Microsoft or Oracle. It's a niche that has served the product well, analysts say.

"The ease of use has helped FileMaker do quite well, while most of the competitors have fallen away," Folger said. FileMaker being the only viable choice on the Mac "helps them some, too."

FileMaker's biggest success has been with workgroups with 2 to 250 members. To date, the company has shipped 7.5 million copies of its database software.

"Each of the last two years, we shipped about a million copies of FileMaker across the world," Goupil said.

FileMaker is a wholly owned subsidiary of Apple Computer that emerged after the disintegration of Claris in the late 1990s.