About five years ago, FileMaker, Inc., debuted a new technology they dubbed "WebDirect". WebDirect is a sort of translation technology: it takes a database file that normally expects to be opened in FileMaker Pro and converts it into a web page that can be opened and used in a web browser. It's one thing to translate the look of a FileMaker layout into a web page that looks like a FileMaker database layout. What's really remarkable about WebDirect is that it translates (almost) everything else, as well. You can edit records, click buttons, run scripts. You can print reports, and generate, store and even edit pdfs. You can insert photos. A WebDirect-deployed app can make a phone call or send a text message. It can even open a web page for you — inside a web page!
It took a couple of versions for WebDirect to grow up. But as of FileMaker version 15 (released in 2016), we at Rucksack Technology decided to go all-in on WebDirect. As with every technology, there are pros and cons. But we believe the pros outweigh the cons, at least for our users. Accordingly for almost the last two years, all of our development work has been done with the expectation that our users would be working in web browsers. In September 2018, we decided to deploy exclusively to WebDirect.
Easier access for users
The biggest advantage WebDirect offers is convenience for our users. "Convenience" is a weak word for what really is a major advantage. Need to get to a WebDirect app? No need to download and install and keep updated a local copy of FileMaker Pro Advanced. You need only what you need to access your Gmail or Amazon accounts: a URL and an account. You can access your apps from anywhere.
And web deployment more fully realizes the promise of hosted apps by allowing feature upgrades to be handled entirely on the server side of the equation, without requiring any effort from users at all. When FileMaker introduces a great new feature to its platform, I don't have to demand that my users upgrade to a new version of FileMaker Pro to take advantage of it: I can take care of this on the server.
The "connect from anywhere" angle also eliminates the FileMaker platform's biggest weakness: its lack of a native mobile app for Android devices. Android users can't run FileMaker Go (the counterpart to FileMaker Pro on iOS devices) but Android devices can run a WebDirect-designed app in a browser just as well as an iPhone or iPad can.
Because both computers and smart mobile devices can save web page bookmarks to the device desktop, you can save your app's bookmark and then open it directly, the same way you open any other app you use.
We are persuaded that, especially with some of the special measures we are taking, our WebDirect-deployed apps are at least as secure as our FileMaker-Pro-deployed apps were and possibly even more secure. In the unlikely scenario where a user finds and exploits a security hole, a user with FileMaker Pro might (theoretically) be able to do some mischief. On the other hand, WebDirect accounts simply do not have the ability to modify the app structure.
More disciplined development
WebDirect still has some foibles: things it can do, but does not do as well or as reliably as FileMaker Pro. For example, the export setup dialog in WebDirect is small and awkward to navigate compared to the export setup dialog in FileMaker Pro. But serious limitations? The thing I personally miss most when I work in WebDirect is keyboard shortcuts. WebDirect does not support them. (Site-specific keyboard shortcuts are a problem for web development generally.) Now lack of support for keyboard shortcuts mainly affects power users. Most users are content to point and click. But yes, there are still problems to solve, especially in our older solutions. By "older", I mean "older than one or two years". Growing pains are inevitable, even healthy, but they're still pains.
Nevertheless, we believe that WebDirect's challenges are making us better, more careful developers. Over the last two years as we have worked almost entirely for WebDirect deployment, we have become more and more inclined to take a simpler, most disciplined approach to development, and producing more elegant, better applications.
It's still FileMaker!
Although you are not installing a local copy of FileMaker, you are still using 100% home-grown FileMaker technology. WebDirect user connections are licensed by FileMaker in a manner more or less identical to the licensing of the FileMaker Pro Advanced app that you have to download and install and maintain. Classic websites programmed in PHP using SQL backends to store data can lower per-connection costs dramatically, but development costs skyrocket. We know! That's what we used to do, twenty years ago. FileMaker WebDirect is not the right choice for a site that expects to have hundreds or thousands of anonymous users. But by using FileMaker Pro Advanced for development and deploying via WebDirect, we give our clients and licensees a pretty good deal. We develop secure, reliable, attractive and deeply functional apps for our clients and licensees with much greater agility than we could achieve in any other technology. Savings in development time = savings to our clients. And in the end, our clients get the drop-dead-simple convenience of web access to their systems.
Web access is the future — and the future is already here
The war between native apps and web apps has been going on for almost two decades now.
Apple has been a strong advocate for "native" apps — apps that you download, install and update — claiming with some justification that they can provide a richer user experience than web apps. Apple's subsidiary FileMaker has generally taken the same line. Google on the other hand has advocated for the web browser as a deployment platform. Apple is doing well as a company selling hardware, and I think Apple's operating systems (macOS and iOS) remain easier to use, better integrated and more problem-free than Microsoft Windows or Android.
But when we turn to apps, the landscape is quite different. In the contest between native apps and browser-based apps, Google won hands down. The decisive issue is not whether Microsoft Word or Pages provides a "richer user experience" than Google Docs. The decisive issue is whether Google Docs provides a user experience that is rich enough. And answer to that seems to be a resounding chorus of yesses. Ditto the contrast between many other web apps and native apps. More people use Gmail than use Apple Mail. More people use Google Sheets than Apple Numbers. I used to build web applications in a complex app called Dreamweaver; now my websites are built online. I edit my photos now in Adobe Lightroom CC online. If I weren't forced to use FileMaker Pro Advanced to do my development work, I would live in my browser, like most of my users.
People today expect to be able to do everything in their web browsers, wherever they are. We are working to make that possible for our users!