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Summary:

Originally introduced in OS X Tiger, Automator is a drag-and-drop form of scripting. You can create workflows to easily speed up many tasks. With each version of OS X, Automator has seen some improvements, but with Snow Leopard, it finally realizes its full potential. It realizes […]

Originally introduced in OS X Tiger, Automator is a drag-and-drop form of scripting. You can create workflows to easily speed up many tasks. With each version of OS X, Automator has seen some improvements, but with Snow Leopard, it finally realizes its full potential.

It realizes it by allowing you to create your own Services. Unless you really needed to delve into the Services menu (located under the Application menu) you’re likely to never even know it’s there — when I asked a friend to screenshot her Leopard Services menu for this article, she replied “what menu?” That menu was, to put it gently, a bleeping mess. Every service showed up, even ones that couldn’t be used with program or you had little or no use for. Here’s what it looks like in Leopard.

Services Menu 2009-08-29_2026

In Snow Leopard, the Services menu now only displays actions that can be handled by that program. You can also choose what services show up, so if there’s one you never use, you can hide it. Services are also contextual and will show up when you right-click on an actionable item like text in Pages or a file in Finder. If you click on a file in the Finder, and then the gear icon in the toolbar, you can also see what actions apply to that file.

services

In Leopard, I could create a Finder or iCal action, but creating workflows that would work in any application wasn’t very user friendly. You might be able to create an AppleScript, or if you’re a Quicksilver junkie you could create an action for it, but Snow Leopard really lets the average user create tools to enhance productivity. Now that Automator can create Services, it’s really becoming a powerful tool. Also, in Snow Leopard, Automator can now use data detectors, so if you select an address, you can use Automator to write an action that’ll look it up in Google Maps.

I’m going to show you a few services I created today while learning the new tools — as well as a few I got from macosxautomation.com. Now, I’m not saying you couldn’t do these in 10.5, but how slick and easy it now is in 10.6 is amazing. I can easily see the Services menu now acting as a sort of Macro Central to it make it easy to find my actions.

Emailing Specific Files to Specific People

I’m in a weekly D&D group and we use Wizard’s Character Builder to manage our characters (sadly, it’s Windows-only, ensuring I’ll be a Parallels customer for the foreseeable future). Kelsey, our GM, wants a copy and I’ll send a copy to the guy that hosts the game in case I forget to print them out. I created the service in the screenshot below to automatically attach my characters to a mail message and send them off. Now, regardless of what program I’m in, I can just choose the service I created and email them. I’ve got a few services like this created to email files to frequent recipients.

Automator Email at 12.10.04 PM

Lookup Text On Wikipedia

If you’re typing away and you want to look up text on Wikipedia, download the Internet Services action from macosxautomation.com. This will bring up a pop-up window that’ll let you quickly search Wikipedia. In what’s likely an “I’m missing something obvious moment,” I can’t seem to get the action to work from within Safari. While we’re on the subject of Safari, that same Internet Services action lets you create a webpage popup of any page. By default, it presents itself as an iPhone, so you get a small, mobile optimized pop up. This is handy if there’s any web sites you frequently consult.

Automator wiki

Browse Your iPhoto Library

This is another one I downloaded from macosxautomation.com. One of the features I love in iWork is being able to browse my iPhoto library and insert a photo into my document. Now, with the Browse Library service, I can have that same functionality in any program.

Automator iPhoto Lookup

Weird Glitches and Problems

So far in my admittedly small data sample, I’ve only run into a few issues. I’ve already talked about the Wiki lookup not working in Safari, but I’ve also noticed Automator doesn’t see text selected in Microsoft Word 2008 as “selected text” — no services other than the general services show up in Word (I didn’t try out the rest of the suite). What’s interesting is there are a ton of Office-related actions included in Automator. I’ve had an e-mail discussion with Microsoft’s Mac BU about this and they’re looking into it.

Resources

MacBreak Video has a great session with Sal Saghoian, the AppleScript Product Manager at Apple. I’m constantly amazed at how Sal’s laid-back presentation style actually makes what could be a dry topic easy to follow. He’ll show you some great video examples of what the new Automator can do.

I’ve mentioned macosxautomation.com multiple times, and I’m mentioning it again. This site is promising to be my one-stop shop as I continue to learn about Automator.

The changes in Automator look fantastic. Until now, my Automator usage has been very situational. In Snow Leopard, I’m looking forward to creating workflows I’ll be using daily.

  1. Regarding the issue of contextual text services not showing up in Word and other applications — the applications have to support contextual services. Some standard Cocoa-based applications like Safari, Mail, and TextEdit already fully support contextual text services. However, many applications, including those in iWork and iLife, don’t support contextual text services. I’m sure this will change over times, as the amount of code required to implement support is very minimal and the benefits are many.

    Regarding the web view action — you can set it to display in a variety of sizes and either as Safari or iPhone as the user agent. There’s another example on the website that shows how to use it to download images from MobileMe galleries. It’s advantage is its simplicity and lightweight footprint and not requiring the use of a full browser application. Also, you can set the action to return the selected text from the current view so it’s easy to create a workflow that uses selected terms for a server search and replaces them with data or images. Very cool. It also makes a very fast and simple Twitter or FaceSpan client that comes whenever you hit a keystroke as shown in this tutorial. Enjoy!

    http://www.macosxautomation.com/services/learn/tut04/index.html

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  2. In the D&D Mail message, you don’t want to CC the same group that you BCC to.

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    1. they aren’t. It’s the gray “sample” text in the workflow action. They don’t actually run.

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  3. Unfortunately, I can not find my favorite service: Speech > Read Text !!!

    How am I supposed to annoy my friends by having my computer read the news aloud for me and everyone’s overwheleming pleasure?

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    1. I think there’s a “convert text to speech” command. Ihnatko mentioned it on MBW.

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  4. For D&D, you might consider CharSys d20 which is a Mac-only character generator and maintainer. You can find it at http://maccrafters.com/charsys. I haven’t updated it for quite some time but it might suit your needs.

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  5. [...] things that Apple’s Automator application can provide, you are going to be pretty excited for some of the changes in Mac OS X [...]

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  6. More options for Automator for Windows in my spanish blog :) I relate 10 options for automation tasks and more in Windows OS.

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  7. [...] menu plugins are dead in Snow Leopard, replaced by the revamped Services system.  A user recently contacted me because he wanted to replicate the “Move Items” [...]

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  8. Tm, I’ve found where they put Speech in Snow Leopard. It was a favorite service of mine as well. They’ve actually made it much easier to use than before. Simply highlight the text you want read then right-click. One of the options offered there is Speech. :)
    Way to go, Apple!

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    1. Yes but the Speech option doesn’t show up when you use Chrome. This is why I would like to create a Service as well.

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  9. [...] new Automator is really amazing. I wrote about it already, and I stand by that article. Automator alone has been worth the upgrade fee for [...]

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  10. Does anyone know why the “Find People with Birthdays” feature doesn’t produce any results on Snow Leopard? It brings up the Address Book and shows me the person with the birthday in the Smart Group, if there are any in them, but then it doesn’t produce results, so I cannot automate things further.

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    1. This bug has been driving me nuts and I have not been able to find an answer. I just keep find people with the same problem.

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