Why We Created Gloss for PDF Viewing, Search and Annotation in FileMaker

Here’s an obvious statement: PDFs are indispensable for modern work. Think of what gets stored this way: plans, manuscripts, legal documents, contracts, invoices…the list goes on. Some industries and fields generate a high volume of PDFs, and the more PDFs an organization has, the harder it is to organize those PDFs in a meaningful way. Which is why many of those organizations have found a way to sort and store their documents quickly and easily… but with solutions that are otherwise very limited.

Some of these ways have included attempts to bring PDF documents into an organization’s natural workflows with FileMaker. The problem with these solutions is that they little more than store those PDFs within the context of a larger database system. That might make them easier to find, but doesn’t add much else. As soon as you want to do more—for example, search the contents of a PDF, or bookmark a page, or highlight a passage, you discover that you have a little more than a filing system only and not a tool that truly delivers what your workflow demands.

The next logical step for many developers, then, is to use an external app in addition to their FileMaker solution. This approach often requires some sort of orchestrated import and export routine. That supporting app is not always web-based—often just stored locally on a particular device or workstation—which makes it difficult to share this functionality across the organization or use it in the field.

That second approach feels like exactly the sort of workaround that custom software should solve or avoid in the first place.

This specific need—the need for something more than a storage system, but still native to FileMaker and that doesn’t require a manual workaround—is what inspired our team to come up with an easier solution. It started when we saw the difficulties in document management that one of our legal clients was having. They had reached a breaking point when it came to working with their PDFs, and we realized we could do what we do best: Build a solution that could handle their needs directly within FileMaker, automating what otherwise would be a manual process.

Gloss: Our Inspiration and Initial Use Case

Reliably, law firms have to track and file a lot of paperwork, especially exhibits and materials for use at trial. While a typical database might offer some contextual storage and search capabilities, those often aren’t enough. What about adding and sorting with metadata? Adding notes and annotations to those PDFs? What about bookmarking important pages and using the database itself to cross-reference all of it?

A legal client of ours was facing exactly this issue. While they had a storage and organizational workflow for managing their collection of PDFs, it wasn’t possible to search, annotate or bookmark data points within them.

Although it pains us to say it, the native, built-in PDF-viewing capabilities of FileMaker are somewhat limited. Our client needed a better viewing experience within their FileMaker database and the ability to quickly search the contents of those documents. They also needed the ability to add and share annotations to those PDFs in a way that made them easily accessible to (and usable for) others within the organization.

Our team worked with the firm closely to build a FileMaker integration that allows them to quickly and powerfully view, search, and annotate their PDF documents in a multi-user environment. We used our experience and knowledge of FileMaker, along with some readily accessible tools (that required a ton of customization and development), to address these challenges in an elegant way. The resulting app was so helpful and successful, we are now making it available to the broader Claris and FileMaker marketplace.

Thus, Gloss was born.

Going Beyond Existing Tools: PDF Annotation

Solutions already exist for storing, organizing, viewing, and searching PDFs. But for our legal client, and for countless other organizations that rely heavily on PDFs, much more is needed.

A great example of what more is needed is annotation. Just as paper documents often need notes, sketches, signatures or stamps of approval, digital PDFs often need these things, too. As examples:

  • An engineer or team leader might need to stamp a document to confirm they’ve reviewed it.
  • A legal team might need to note where two documents discuss the same incident, or are relevant to the same argument for a case.
  • A form might need a signature to indicate that it was completed or accepted.
  • An estimate or contract might benefit from notes and measurements a contractor takes while on the job site.

This is just a small sample of items that are part of a regular workflow and that need to be captured at the document level. And, unlike with a paper document, someone working with a PDF can’t just take a pen to screen to add these items.

With Gloss, we anticipated many types of categorical annotations that could be critical for organizations, including:

  • Highlights within text, drawings and plans
  • Additions of graphical elements such as pictures and stamps
  • Casual markup using shapes, arrows, signatures, or even freeform scribbles

With Gloss, users can always go back to edit their annotations, or choose to “flatten” the document to eliminate the layers of annotations and incorporate those edits as permanent fixtures in the file.

Annotating PDFs doesn’t just make them more like paper documents: It actually reduces the potential for errors and makes workflows run more smoothly. To take our last example from above: Think about the contractor who has to walk around the job site, clipboard in hand, taking down measurements, making sketches, and maybe even juggling a set of printed floor plans. What does that person do when they are done at the job site? Likely, they will need to add all of those notes manually when they get back to the office…which could well be days or even weeks from now. The chances of making a mistake, or forgetting to add those notes to something that everyone can access, are high.

Now imagine that same contractor having access to PDF documents within a company-wide application. Those could include floor plans, estimates, design sketches—anything that could be captured in a paper document. The contractor can add their notes directly to the relevant PDF, and have them instantly available to everyone who can access that document. There’s no manual transfer, so also there are fewer steps that can lead to error.

Others on the team can now work with those documents and notes, too. The architect, for example, can see where modifications need to be made given real-life measurements and constraints. The billing office has access to the documents that indicate the true scope of work. And so on. Whether in the field or in the office, everyone is now working with the same documents without error-prone manual steps.

That’s the promise of using Gloss together with FileMaker.

Gloss also vastly improves the overall viewing and searching experience of PDFs within FileMaker, with much better scrolling and rendering speeds for a better user experience, and a powerfully fast PDF content search utility that is unavailable natively in FileMaker.

A Cloud-Based, Integrated FileMaker Solution Developers Will Love

While Gloss does a lot to empower end-users, we feel that the people who will really benefit are developers. We see a future where developers will want to incorporate Gloss into many of the solutions they build, expanding the capabilities of FileMaker in all sorts of new ways.

The reason is simple: We’ve seen our fair share of time-consuming and error-prone hacks to ingest and edit PDFs within fairly standard workflows. Those workarounds are fragile and limit the functionality developers really need.

To date, the options for developers have been limited: Quickly build a workaround process or technology (which, in our view and direct experience, tend to compromise functionality) or deploy an external app and orchestrate passing files back and forth among various platforms and devices (which only serves to replace several manual steps with several others that are just as fragile and difficult to maintain over time).

Now developers have a third option in Gloss. Gloss is a lightweight, cloud-based application that lets users view, search, and annotate PDFs natively from right within a FileMaker solution. This allows information about and within those PDFs to flow seamlessly between users, teams and locations, with everything kept up to date and ready to use by anyone.

Save Precious Time and Budget with Gloss

If there is a takeaway in the story of Gloss here, it is this: Gloss saves time and frustration. Yes, there are other tools and workarounds for handling PDFs, but a developer’s most precious resource is time. Even if you have the skill set to develop a solution for handling PDFs, you rarely have the bandwidth.

There’s also a cost aspect to consider. The tool we used to build Gloss has a five-figure initial licensing price tag. From the hundreds of hours we spent in coding and testing, I can say with firsthand experience: It was not a trivial lift to get Gloss up and running. So why reinvent the wheel? Skeleton Key has already done the hard work for developers so they can begin deploying Gloss in their own solutions quickly and easily. Instead of hundreds of hours, implementation literally takes just a handful of minutes.

If this sounds like something you’d consider using for your FileMaker-based solutions, see what kinds of things Gloss can do; you can use the form on the page to schedule a demo or otherwise reach out to us about Gloss.