PDF File Creation and FileMaker by Pam Rotella
PDF (Portable Document Format) is a popular file format for many reports and presentations. The file size is usually small, the visual format matches that of the printed page, and most computer users have at minimum a free version of PDF reader software installed on their computers, typically Adobe Acrobat Reader.
In recent versions of FileMaker, making a PDF file can be as easy as clicking the "File" menu, selecting "Save/Send Records As," and then choosing "PDF." FileMaker's PDF option is a great feature for database managers hoping to circulate smaller reports via e-mail, or to store them in a format easily read by most computer users.
However, experienced FileMaker users know that FileMaker isn't always the best choice to create PDF files, especially PDFs from larger reports.
When files are larger, for example when a database is storing large graphic images, or when a report has a large number of records, then a PDF file created by FileMaker may be too large for practical purposes. In my professional experience, some PDF files created by FileMaker are hundreds of megabytes -- files difficult or impossible to e-mail, send to a printer, or even open with a standard PDF reader. In such cases, creating a PDF file small enough to use is within reach, but not with FileMaker software.
The usual method
For most computer software programs without a "save as PDF" menu option, creating PDF files is handled by adding PDF software. A software program, such as the full version of Adobe Acrobat, is installed, and then creating a PDF file is listed among the other available "printers" within the "select printer" feature of each software program. Printing to that option creates a PDF file rather than a paper report. PDF files created with such software are usually smaller in size and faster to produce than PDFs created by FileMaker software. The advantage increases as the report size in FileMaker goes up. Creating a PDF file from a print menu option is the equivalent of producing a simple print file.
For home use or those with tight budgets, there are less expensive options than Adobe Acrobat; I've found off-brand PDF creation software for as little as $10 in clearance bins of retail stores. Yet whether they work as well as Adobe software, or offer as much flexibility, is something to consider before a purchase. The full version of Adobe Acrobat allows features like manipulating PDF files to combine various documents and move pages around. Your FileMaker report could be combined with a Word document and Excel spreadsheet, with the least useful pages dropped, if you want. Off-brand software may not have as many features, and FileMaker certainly won't act as a PDF editing suite.
Personally, I have encountered many reports that were impossible to generate with FileMaker's PDF feature due to size, but created within 5-10 minutes using Adobe software. The resulting PDF files were also very small, as though the software had transformed a simple word processing document into PDF format.
Making software work in harmony
So far, the only problem I've encountered with add-on PDF software is what I call "the Citrix glitch." When I consulted at a major insurance company, a Senior VP's assistant had a problem producing her FileMaker reports as PDF files from Adobe software -- but only when she ran her FileMaker software from Citrix. When running FileMaker from Citrix, a large black box would always appear on one of the reports, blocking out critical data.
I resolved that issue by recommending to management that they allow her to have FileMaker installed locally on her computer. The assistant's job required a number of regular reports from FileMaker in PDF format, reports that were impossible to transform into PDF files from FileMaker's regular menu. The local FileMaker installation solved the "big black box" problem.
When using different software packages in combination, quirks are to be expected. Adobe, FileMaker, and Citrix weren't designed to work perfectly together, but they're all great programs. Citrix saves larger companies a small fortune on software licensing fees, and the FileMaker developer needs to work with that and other network-based programs in most larger corporate environments. In the one case just mentioned, only one employee had reports large enough to show such a problem, but her reports were used by the CIO and considered to be critical. All other FileMaker users were able to work with FileMaker served over Citrix, and so in their case the problem wasn't very expensive to fix. However, companies with a large number of users who need better PDF capabilities, but experience similar difficulties, may want to research their options more thoroughly.
The ongoing mingling of FileMaker and add-ons
Any experienced FileMaker developer is familiar with software add-ons called "Plug-ins." Although FileMaker has great user interface capabilities and is designed to be intuitive for simpler solutions, it's still a database product. It can't do everything for everybody, and sometimes extra software products are needed to create better application features. PDF file creation is one of those needs.
A good developer knows when to stop squeezing the last bit of functionality out of FileMaker, and when to allow a better-suited application to take over. FileMaker is not a desktop publishing suite. In the case of small reports, its built-in PDF menu option is quick and convenient. For larger reports, the best choice is usually exploring other options.
- Pam Rotella is a Senior FileMaker Developer with over 20 years of I.T./PC database programming experience, more than 15 of those years working with FileMaker. She frequently consults with major US corporations and medium-sized companies, and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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