Utility software

Automated email

As much as Mac OS X’s Mail application has improved over the past couple years, those improvements haven’t yet compelled me to switch from using Microsoft Entourage as my primary email client. Two of the reasons I still prefer Entourage are the thriving community of scripters that add functionality to Entourage, and Entourage’s superior rules—automated actions that can be applied to messages as they arrive or whenever you’re “done” with them. (Mail has rules, as well, but its rules aren’t as powerful, or as flexible, as Entourage’s. For example, you can’t apply a single rule to messages in Mail—it’s all or nothing.)

That said, I do use Mail regularly, just to stay in the loop on how it’s developing and to keep an eye out on available add-ons—I haven’t ruled out switching if Mail fills my needs at some point. And every once in a while I find a real Gem, such as Scott Morrison’s free Mail Act-On 1.3.1 (   ). Explained simply, Mail Act-On lets you invoke mail rules using the keyboard. But that simple explanation belies how much functionality Mail Act-On can actually provide. Anything you can do with a rule in Mail—move, copy, forward, redirect, reply to, or delete a message; set the color and read/flagged status of a message; or even run an AppleScript—you can do via the keyboard using Mail Act-On.

That may not sound like a big deal, but trust me—Mail Act-On gives Mail functionality it never had before. After installing Mail Act-On—it’s a Mail plug-in, located in ~/Library/Mail/Bundles—selecting one or more email messages and then pressing the Mail Act-On activation key (by default, the ` key) brings up Mail Act-On’s shortcut screen. All rules that you’ve set up for access via Mail Act-On show up on the screen, along with the shortcut key you designated for each rule. For example, here’s Mail Act-On’s default shortcut screen, displaying the two sample rules it creates for you when it first runs:

Mail Act-On sample rules screen

In this scenario, pressing the r key would change the highlight color of the selected message(s) to red. (If you’d prefer a single keystroke to this two-step process, you can simply press Control+ key , assuming you remember the keystroke assigned to a rule.) Mail Act-On then briefly displays a confirmation alert, letting you know exactly what you just did; this is a nice touch that avoids those situations where you’ve unintentionally done something, but you don’t know what. (You can choose how long this alert appears via Mail Act-On’s preferences.)

Mail Act-On confirmation screen

Besides the convenience of being able to apply a rule to any message (or group of messages) on-the-fly, Mail Act-On overcomes one of Mail’s biggest rule weaknesses—it lets you apply a single rule to selected messages. (Mail’s Apply Rules command applies all rules.) This means that individual rules can be used to process messages after they’ve been received. For example, you can set up a rule to automatically move selected messages to a “Friends” mail folder and assign that rule to the f key. Voila! You’ve got a keyboard shortcut for moving messages to a folder—simply press ` then f (or just Control+f).

How to you create rules for Mail Act-On to use? You use Mail’s Rules preferences screen, just as you would any other rule, but with two twists: First, make sure the condition part of the rule reads “If any of the following conditions are met: Every Message.” (This allows the rule to work on whatever message you select.) Second, you need to name your Mail Act-On rules using the following syntax:

Act-On: key | rulename

where key is the key you want to use as the rule’s shortcut and rulename is whatever name you want to give the rule. You then choose whatever actions you want that rule to perform. (Note that Mail Act-On’s keyboard shortcuts are case sensitive, so f is a different shortcut than F .)

For example, if you wanted to create a Mail Act-On shortcut that marks a message as flagged and then moves it to your “Friends” folder using the shortcut key f , you would set up a rule called “Act-On: f | Flag and move to Friends"; the condition would be “Every Message”; and the rule’s actions would be “mark as Flagged” and “Move Message to mailbox: Friends.” After doing so, Mail Act-On’s shortcut screen will show the new rule and make it available as an option for processing messages. (Control+f will perform the rule’s action immediately, bypassing the shortcut screen.)

Mail Act-On new rule

One other caveat here is that rules you create for Mail Act-On should be placed at the end of the rules list, after any rules you might create for handling all incoming mail. To avoid problems, Mail Act-On automatically creates a rule called “Act-On: Stop Processing Receive Rules” that ensures your Mail Act-On rules don’t get applied to all incoming messages; simply drag your new Mail Act-On rules below this rule and make sure any rules you want to apply to all incoming mail are moved above it.

I mentioned earlier than one of Mail Act-On’s great features is that it lets you apply a single rule to selected messages. But it can also apply multiple rules to the same message(s). If you assign several different rules the same key (for example, the f key in the example above), pressing that shortcut will apply all of those rules to the selected messages. Mail simply doesn’t allow you to do this.

As a Mail plug-in, Mail Act-On gets its own screen in Mail’s preferences window. Via this screen you can customize Mail Act-On’s activation key, the prefix and separator character you use in the name of rules, the sort order of items in the Mail Act-On screen, and the length of time before the screen or confirmation alert disappear (or whether or not they appear at all).

More tips on using Mail Act-On are available via the utility’s Web site. For example, some people use Mail Act-On to assign “Getting Things Done” categories to messages and then to file them in corresponding folders.

The only issue I’ve had with Mail Act-On is that when using it with IMAP messages, sometimes the “state” actions—mark as unread and flag—don’t work when the action also involves moving a message to a folder. I ended up creating two separate rules to accomplish this task.

I mentioned my affinity towards Entourage at the beginning of this column. The reason I did that is to drive home the following point: Mail Act-On is such a cool add-on for Mail that if I ever do switch from Entourage to Mail, Mail Act-On will get a big chunk of the credit.

Mail Act-On 1.3.1 is compatible with Mail in Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther) and 10.4 (Tiger).

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