For many people, the word "database" conjures up an image of a computer and a vast collection of information you can access only on a computer screen. But actually, databases are all around you—a phone book, a cookbook, and an encyclopedia are all databases. So is the stock page in your newspaper. In fact, if you look up the word "database" in a dictionary (which is a database, too), you'll probably read that a database is just a collection of information, or data.
Ideally, a database's information is organized so that you can easily find what you're looking for. For example, a Rolodex has information about people organized alphabetically. You can find any person's card pretty quickly because you know approximately where it is, even though there may be hundreds of cards to look through. But physical databases like this example all have major limitations compared to those that are stored on a computer. What if you want to get a list of all your associates in California? A Rolodex isn't organized that way, so you have to look through every card one by one. That kind of tedium is one of the reasons so many Rolodexes are now at the bottom of landfills, and it's one of the biggest problems a computer database program like FileMaker Pro can help you avoid.
The term database program means a computer program designed to help you build a database. Lots of computer programs use a database in one way or another; for example, your email program tracks hundreds of email messages you've sent and received, but it isn't a database program. A database program lets you build your own database and customize it to meet your specific needs.
A database stored on a computer isn't much different in theory than one painstakingly collected on Rolodex cards or other forms of paper. It contains lots of information, like addresses, Zip codes, and phone numbers, and organizes that info in useful ways (see Figure I-1 for an example). But because it's stored on a computer, you can organize the same information in numerous ways with ease—say, by name or by state. Computers also make searching databases a whole lot faster. In fact, a computer can often look through almost any amount of data in less than a second, which is a lot quicker than flipping through all your Rolodex cards to find everyone who lives in Kansas.
Figure I-1. FileMaker Pro lets you do just about anything with the information you give it. You can use it like a Rolodex to simply store and retrieve information, or run your entire business with this one program. FileMaker's built-in number-crunching and word-processing tools let you track people, processes, and things, creating all your reports, correspondence, and collateral documents along the way. Here are two examples of real-world FileMaker databases created for very different kinds of businesses.
This book will teach you how FileMaker stores your information and how you can rearrange that information and get the answers to meaningful questions like which employees are due for performance reviews, who's coming to the company picnic, and which amusement park has the best deal on Laser Tag so you can throw a party for your top 50 performers. You won't have to learn to think like a programmer (or know the arcane terms they use), but you will learn how to bend FileMaker Pro's hidden power to your will and make it tell you everything it knows about your company, your stock portfolio, or how much you've spent on the replacement parts for the '58 Bonneville Sport Coupe you're rebuilding.
If you're reading this book, you've already decided to use a computer database instead of the mulched-up tree variety. Choosing a database program from the many options on the market is overwhelming. Some are enormously powerful but take years to learn how to use. Others are easy to get started with but don't offer much help when you're ready to incorporate some more advanced features. Here are a few reasons why FileMaker Pro is a great choice for most folks:
FileMaker Pro is the ease-of-use champion. While other programs use funny words like query, join, and alias, FileMaker Pro uses simple concepts like find, sort, and connect. FileMaker is designed from the ground up for non-technical people who have a real job to do. It's designed to let you get in, get your database built, and get back to work.
FileMaker Pro can do almost anything. Some other database programs are simple to use, but they're just plain simple, too—they can't do the kinds of things most businesses need to do. FileMaker Pro, despite its focus on ease of use, is very powerful. It can handle large amounts of data. It lets lots of people on different computers share data (even at different locations around the world). It even meets the needs of bigger companies, like integrating with high-end systems. And it's adaptable enough to solve most problems. If your home-based crafting business is taking off, and you need to figure out how much it costs you to create your top-selling items, FileMaker can do that. But if you're a large school district tracking dozens of test scores for more than 50,000 students in grades K-12, and you have to make sure those scores are tied to federal standards, FileMaker can handle that, too.
FileMaker Pro works on Macs or PCs. If you or your company use both types of computers, FileMaker Pro makes the connection seamless. The exact same databases can be used on any computer, and even shared over the network simultaneously without a hitch (see FileMaker Network Sharing).
FileMaker Pro is fun! It may sound corny, but it's exciting (and a little addictive) to have such a powerful tool at your fingertips. If you get the bug, you'll find yourself solving all kinds of problems you never knew you had. You might not think that getting married is an occasion for breaking out a new database, but you'll be amazed at how helpful it is. You can make a mailing list for your invitations, track RSVPs, note which favorite aunt sent you a whole set of bone china (and which cousin cheaped out by signing his name on his brother's gift card), and you can record what date you mailed the thank-you notes.
Everybody uses it. Perhaps best of all, FileMaker Pro is very popular—more people buy FileMaker Pro than any other database program. And the program's fans love it so much they're actually willing to help you if you get stuck. You can find user groups, Web sites, discussion boards, chat rooms, mailing lists, and professional consultants all devoted to FileMaker Pro. This is one case where there's good reason to follow the crowd.