May 01 KoolTools
Volume Number: 17 (2001)
Issue Number: 05
Column Tag: KoolTools
Is 4D 6.7 Really Worth it for RAD Developers?
by Matthew Stoton
The main goal of any high-end database is to deploy information as fast and easily as possible. Until version 5, FileMaker has been the obvious choice for anyone; experienced or not. 4th Dimension is now ready to entice FileMaker users to make the switch with version 6.7. Now 4D has RAD capabilities, WAP support, Mac OS Theme support, 24 new and 24 modified commands and several new Internet features. More than enough reasons to upgrade, but will it be enough to bring FileMaker users home?
All Entangling Web
What about those who only need a single user database? This is where most would crown FileMaker king... or not. 4D has some great tools for small-time developers that simply can't be ignored. Sure, I'll be the first to admit that 4D, if put in the hands of an unexperienced user, can be overkill. For the unexperienced, Filemaker's word-like simplicity is great, yet it lacks some of the features of a full-featured database like 4th Dimension. 4D has power that can't be found in FileMaker, although this can be troublesome at times. Even if you don't need a relational database, 4D is still the product for you. Even if you only need to do simple database tasks, 4D will boost your productivity like you've never seen before.
Bugs and So Much More
Of course you'd hardly expect a feature packed program like this to be bug free. And after years of using a rather mediocre product, you could over look more interface glitches than you care to admit. Not so. With 4D you have no reason to anyway. In FileMaker 5 the interface looks exactly like AppleWorks 5, except for an ugly Microsoft Word button-bar. 4D has a similar button bar that looks more like AppleWorks' but with tool-tips instead of an info box. It opens to a simple "open/new" dialog box, allowing you to open a previous database or make a new one. After choosing "New Database", you must make the structure for it. This is sure to confuse users who used the "Define Fields" window in FileMaker. In the structure window you define the table, fields and any relationships between them. This speeds up the field-making process tremendously. After this you are required to create a form ; 4D's version of FileMaker's "layout". Naturally, the process of making a form is quick and easy, it can be completed in as little as five minutes depending on the size of database. A much more daunting task is editing a created form. It brings up two palettes: the tools palette and the property list. Both palettes take up tons of screen space and the tools palette has no tool-tips for it's generic-looking icons. The most annoying problem is that when you align two objects using the align feature, both objects move to a central point. Unless you go deeper into that menu, can you bring up a more detailed alignment dialog. The design area isn't all faults though. You can choose to display many different page guides to assist in keeping everything in the page. It also offers a grid, rulers, grouping, mass duplication and many other time-saving options.
The main reason to choose 4D is it's speed, or ability to save time. It's interface isn't nearly as nice as that of Bryce, but it isn't all that bad either. It doesn't really enable you to have a "liquid work flow", but it offers some really smooth easy-to-find features. Time is the 4th Dimension, so its no coincidence that they named the program 4D. I must say, it really is fast. If for no other reason, buy it because it has the edge on speed. Not only in creating records or other automatic tasks but also in form creation, data importing and structure creating. All tasks that can slow you down on other software.
Learn a New Language
Although it isn't absolutely necessary, it is advisable to learn the 4D programming language. By using it you enable greater flexibility and without this skill your database or application will be much less powerful. If you are the type that doesn't like to read manuals you should at least browse through the 1600 pages. If you actually read the thing then you will pick up the language much better. It's language, though simple, will knock FileMaker users to the ground. It is not one bit like the all-to-familiar ScriptMaker of FileMaker. Nor is the language anything like the incredibly simple HyperTalk. 4D's language is much like that of FoxPro. For novices this is just one more thing to learn. For seasoned professionals the power of the language will allow much greater flexibility. Although some commands are missing it is a rather mature programming language that empowers all users, novice or pro.
4th Dimension is a great database for those who know databases. If you are a novice then you will not be able to exploit as much of 4D's power as an experienced user would, but you will still get incredible results. If you already own FileMaker then the decision to switch is an easy one. Even software developers will love it's great functionality using RAD. Whether making a database or anything else time is always important. 4D gives users more speed and flexibility. So, whether you are a seasoned professional, unhappy FileMaker user or a complete novice, you will be at home in 4th Dimension.
Matthew Stoton is a software developer and writer. He uses RAD and visual programming tools. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his site at www.totallymac.8m.com.