Delegating the grunt work
A cute robot is the mascot for Automator, one of the most interesting features in Tiger. And with good reason: Automator is a utility that’s designed, like the 21st-century robots we were once promised, to do all the dull, repetitive tasks we intelligent humans don’t want to bother with.
Unlike AppleScript, the powerful language that lets you write programs to control your applications, Automator is meant to be used by the general public. You don’t need to be a programmer or learn to type any esoteric commands to use Automator; instead, you just create a flow chart by dragging and dropping a series of actions into a window.
How It Works
On the left side of Automator’s window, you pick from a large collection of actions organized by the application they belong to. (It would be nice if Apple let you view actions by category instead, so you didn’t have to search through various programs to find the one that contains the action you need.) When you find the right action, you drag it into the Workflow area. As you drag items in, they connect to one another. By building up a series of actions, you can create a complex series of tasks that incorporate several different Mac programs.
Once an action is in the Workflow window, you can set different options that let you define exactly what that action will do. For example, the Preview application’s Scale Images action lets you define what size or percentage you’d like it to scale your image to.
Here's an example of what Automator can do, taken from one of the sample “workflow” Apple provides with Tiger: it’s a tool that automatically takes unread messages in Mail and copies them as a note file onto an attached iPod. It’s a process you could do by hand every single time you want to transfer mail to your iPod, but why bother? With Automator it’s a four-step process: an action that checks your mail within Mail, an action that finds only unread mail messages, an action that combines those found messages together, and an action that generates a new iPod note.
Or take an example that takes advantage of the new features of the just-released BBEdit 8.2: an Automator workflow that extracts the contents of a shared calendar from iCal, massages the text using a series of replacement and line-deletion commands from BBEdit, and then generates an attractive text version of that calendar.
Once you’ve created an automator workflow, you can save it as a tiny application file that you can double-click to run. Or for tasks that act on specific files or folders in the Finder, you can even save it as a Finder plug-in. Once you do that, your workflow will show up when you right-click in the Finder, so you can trigger it quickly.
Tiger comes with well over 100 built-in actions, and both application developers and third parties are busily building more. For example, the aforementioned new version of Bare Bones Software’s BBEdit offers 25 actions of its own. And lots of actions will be available soon from such sites as Automator actions, Automated Workflows (which will sell actions that work with Photoshop, InDesign, and other professional programs), and Automator World. Frequent Macworld contributor Ben Long has whipped up a few Photoshop Actions for Complete Digital Photography, too.
The Last Word
Will Automator change the way you use your Mac? As long as Apple, other application developers, and third-party action authors keep releasing new actions at a good pace, the chances are good. And that’s good news, because it’ll give you more time to do things that require you to use your brain, not just your keyboard and mouse.
[ Jason Snell is Macworld ’s Editorial Director. ]