Serious FileMaker developers, database and network admins, and managers who worry about tying different piles of company data together are going to be the big beneficiaries of major improvements in the latest update to the FileMaker family of products.

If you don't fall into that category - and a lot of FileMaker users do not -don't feel neglected. There are a number of nice things in FileMaker Pro 9.0 itself for solitary or small-workgroup users, too.

Here's an overview of the major features and enhancements introduced in the FileMaker Pro 9.0 overhaul announced last week.

Se habla SQL

The big news with this release of the venerable database program is that FileMaker Pro 9.0 now supports live two-way connections to SQL databases. For years, it has been possible to use FileMaker to query an SQL database and get a copy of the resulting data set (say, customers in a certain zip code). But this old support for access to SQL databases was hard to use, didn't provide live access to data, and - as a practical matter - just didn't work very well, especially on a Mac. That's all changed with FileMaker Pro 9.0.

There are many specific implementations such as Oracle and MySQL, but generically speaking, SQL (pronounced ess-kew-ell or sequel, depending on who you ask) is a standard for heavy-duty databases used in big corporations, universities, research, and on the web - anywhere there is a lot of data to store and many people need to access it.

The medical records database in a hospital is almost certainly powered by SQL; so are your company's human resources and payroll databases, the databases used by your bank and credit card companies, the inventory system used by the grocery store down the street, and your local library's holdings catalogue, just to offer a few examples. Until now, your little FileMaker database was almost completely locked out of these data collections. To that end, using FileMaker was a bit like having mobile phone service with a great company that made easy-to-use phones and offered low prices, but wouldn't let you have a conversation with anybody whose service was provided by a different company.

Of course, you could have used SQL to build your database in the first place. But gosh, who wants to do that? Developing SQL databases usually involves dealing with a lot of nasty technicalities - or to put it plainly, SQL is pretty geeky. That makes it almost the antithesis of FileMaker Pro, whose geekiness-to-power ratio is the lowest in the database industry.

FileMaker Pro 9.0 hasn't made SQL itself any less geeky; it just makes it possible for FileMaker developers not to give a damn. You can now add a major dimension to your FileMaker projects by connecting to SQL databases that were developed and set up by somebody else, so you don't need to know much about SQL at all.

The key to this trick is the data source reference. One of the revolutionary features that appeared in FileMaker 7.0 was the ability to create in one FileMaker database file a reference to another file, and then to use the referenced data as if it were actually stored in the current file. Every FileMaker solution we've built since FileMaker 7.0 appeared consists of two files: a data file that contains nothing but a client's data and a user-interface file, which contains all of the layouts and scripts, the stuff that users actually see. The user-interface file doesn't actually store any data at all.

Well, with FileMaker Pro 9.0, you can now reference and use an SQL data source in the very same way that you might reference and use another FileMaker file. If you can see the SQL data source in the simple find data source dialog, all you have to do is select it, authenticate, and you're in. After that, although the data is actually stored in the SQL database, you can interact with it in your FileMaker Pro 9.0 database - seeing live data that updates automatically, editing data and having it written back to the SQL database so that other users accessing the same data with other interfaces will see the changes you've made. If you have the correct access privileges, you will even be able to create or delete records.