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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.