FileMaker 13's WebDirect: I want to like it. I really do.
When I say that I want to like FileMaker 13's WebDirect feature, I truly mean it.
I remember first seeing WebDirect at DevCon back in 2012 (and again at DevCon 2013). It was obvious that the team at FileMaker was working hard on it, and how excited they were about it. Like many of us who saw it back then, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it.
That opportunity came earlier this year, during early testing of what would eventually become the FileMaker 13 platform that was released earlier this week. My testing of FileMaker Server 13 was on a server that meets what FileMaker refers to as the minimum hardware requirements (dual core, 4GB of RAM, etc). It is certainly not a server that you would want to use in a production setting. But it's the same hardware that I've used to do development work on (with FileMaker Server 12), and it seemed like a good worst case scenario to use in order to get a feel for how the performance of FileMaker Server 13 (and WebDirect in particular) might be.
Upon loading my first database (which was based on one of the new Starter Solutions) in WebDirect, I was immediately impressed by how well the layout was replicated in the browser. The fidelity is truly amazing. What FileMaker has been able to do with HTML5 is beyond impressive. You just have to see it for yourself.
As I navigated around the database in WebDirect, things quickly felt awkward. Having used FileMaker for a long time, I've become dependent on the keyboard shortcuts that FileMaker Pro provides. I still find myself hitting Command-T to omit a record, and then staring at a blank tab in Safari for a second or two, before I've realized what has happened. But I think I could get used to that. Maybe.
Wake Up, Sleepyhead
Then I noticed how slow things were. Common tasks, like changing layouts, scrolling, and performing finds, felt sluggish. And it felt this way when connecting via FileMaker Pro and Go, too. It wasn't as slow in Pro and Go as it was in WebDirect, but things were clearly slower than they had been in 12. I figured that this was because I had WebDirect enabled, which seemed okay at the time...
But then things got worse when WebDirect's refreshing started up. There were times when I could understand why things were being refreshed (for example, when another user made a change to a record that was in the WebDirect client's found set). But there were other times when it just didn't seem to make sense (for example, when I knew that the database was idle). The constant refreshing made it feel as if I was intermittently losing the connection to the server. It quickly became off-putting.
The "Too Thin" Thin Client?
WebDirect supports most of FileMaker's script steps - and many of those that it doesn't support probably don't matter much. For example, there is no "Preview Mode" (which is, when you think about it, understandable). I can live without that one, and many of the others that aren't supported.
However, there is no Print script step either. Having done my fair share of Web development over the years, I can understand how challenging implementing Print in WebDirect would be.
Then I thought to myself, "I can use that cool new Perform Script on Server script step as a work around." You see, "Perform Script on Server" is supported on WebDirect (and in FileMaker Go, too, by the way), and it is one of my favorite new features in FileMaker 13. My plan was to run a script on the server that would perform the print job for the client, and drop the result into a container (or email it to them). But it wasn't long before I realized that the Print script step isn't supported in server-side scripts, either. Not good. Not good at all.
For years, the FileMaker community has been asking for a "thin client." A version of FileMaker Pro without the database design and development functionality. Some referred to it as "FileMaker Lite" and described it as something like FileMaker Go for OS X and Windows.
With WebDirect, we now have a thin FileMaker client. But my fear is that it might be "too thin."
At that point, I realized that I just didn't have it in me to keep messing around with WebDirect. "Maybe I just won't support WebDirect," I thought. And so, sadly, I disabled it on the server, in the hopes that doing so would increase performance for FileMaker Pro and Go clients. And... Nope. Performance for Pro and Go clients didn't get any better. Oh, boy...
Understanding Concurrent Connections
The other issue with WebDirect involves the new "concurrent connection" concept and how FileMaker charges for them.
In order for clients to connect to solutions hosted on FileMaker Server 13 via FileMaker Go or WebDirect, a concurrent connection must be available on the server. FileMaker Server 13 includes support for one concurrent connection, and you can purchase additional connections in groups of 5, up to a total of 50 connections. (You can also purchase Server in such a way that the concurrent connections aren't restricted.) To get a sense of the pricing for these concurrent connections, go here https://store.filemaker.com/US/ENG/LIC/ and adjust the quantity for FileMaker Server 13.
I can understand the need for FileMaker to charge for the concurrent connections. If WebDirect is going to cannibalize sales of FileMaker Pro, then they've got to make up for it somehow. So it seems fair that they would find a way to charge for WebDirect clients. However...
The Impact on FileMaker Go
The problem with concurrent connections is that they apply to FileMaker Go clients, too. And that wouldn't be problem if FileMaker Go's pricing history was different.
Back when FileMaker Go was first released (as part of the FileMaker 11 product line, way back in July of 2010), the cost was $19.99 for the iPhone/iPod version, and $39.99 for the iPad version. That was a little pricy as far as apps go. But for those of us who had been waiting for an iOS-based FileMaker client, it was worth every penny.
Much to our surprise, when FileMaker Go 12 was released (as part of the "12" product line back in April of 2012 ), FileMaker made it available for free. I remember speaking with a client about it. It went something like this:
Me: "Hey Mr. Client, guess what? FileMaker Go 12 is out. It's really cool. And it's free!"
Mr. Client: "Free?"
Me: "Yes, free."
Mr. Client: "Really?"
Me: "Yes, really."
Mr. Client: "What's the catch?"
It seemed too good to be true, as if we were getting away with something.
FileMaker Go 13 is still free. Sort of. Kind of. It is free on the app store. You can still use it (for free) to run apps that are stored on the iOS device itself. But if you connect to a hosted database, then those "concurrent connections" requirements kick in. And suddenly, "free" doesn't feel quite so "free" anymore.
Imagine having to go back to a client who, since April of 2012, has been using the "really, really free" FileMaker Go 12. The client who has distributed iPads to his sales force, who are connecting to a hosted FileMaker database at no charge. Imagine having to tell them that, if they want to upgrade to 13 (and get all of the cool new 13 features like popovers and slide controls and "perform script on server" and all of that), then they need to pay extra.
Here's the awkward conversation that I'll very likely be having with Mr. Client sometime in the next few days:
Me: "Hey Mr. Client, guess what? FileMaker Go 13 is out. It's really cool."
Mr. Client: "Very cool! Can't wait to see it. Is it still free?"
Me: "Yes. Well, sort of."
Mr. Client: "Wait. What?"
I guess that really gets to the heart of the matter. I could live with WebDirect if I could ignore it, and if it didn't impact the rest of the FileMaker platform. But it does. It seems to negatively impact FileMaker Server's performance, even when it is disabled. And it impacts FileMaker Go opportunities because the concurrent connections licensing model applies to both WebDirect and Go (and I don't think it needs to).
FileMaker Version 13. WebDirect Version 1.
I don't know what else to say about WebDirect, other than this: While the FileMaker platform is at version 13, WebDirect is a version 1 feature. It's brand new. It's really cool, totally amazing, and will very likely play an important role in the future of the FileMaker platform...
But at this point, I just don't like it.
Be sure to read my follow-up post, WebDirect: I've Seen the Light.
In it, I discuss my experience creating my first "real" FileMaker WebDirect-based solution, and why I've changed my opinion of WebDirect.
Also be sure to check out FMEasyWeb.
With it, you can create Web-based FileMaker solutions without writing code.