Tiger Primer: Automator

You may not know a lot about it yet, but trust me -- Tiger's new Automator feature will save you a lot of time. A huge amount of time. And it'll do it by preventing you from performing dull, repetitive tasks on your Mac. Instead, the Automator will take care of those tasks for you.

(Apple uses the image of a robot to promote the Automator. Am I the only one who finds that a little scary? Do not taunt the Automator! The first law of Automation is, do not allow humans to come to harm. But who automates the Automators? Ahem.)

In some ways, Automator is AppleScript for people who can't even see the word AppleScript without having their eyes roll back up into the backs of their heads. AppleScript has always been a fantastic way to create little programs that perform repetitive tasks--say, downloading a gallery of images off the Web and using them to generate a DVD slideshow, or converting a bunch of image files to JPEG format and saving them with a standard series of file names. But to benefit from that automation, you had to write AppleScript code --too much to ask of most users.

With the Automator, you don't have to write a single line of code; instead, you build a flow chart. On the left side of the Automator's window, you can pick from a large collection of "actions" organized into 16 categories--Apple is supplying more than 100 actions, and developers can add even more for their own apps--which you drag 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, if you dragged in a Resize Image action, you would use the Workflow window to define the specific size of that image.

Once you're done with creating an action, not only can you can run it, but you can also save it to use later, when you have to perform the same task again. (You can use the Save as Extension command to save the automated process to a file, and even have it placed automatically in the menu bar's Script menu.)

Will everyone use Automator? Probably not. But those that do will save so much time, they'll be way ahead of people who don't.

One of the side benefits of Automator's arrival will be increased pressure on developers to make their programs AppleScript-savvy, since that's going to be the best way to make them usable by Automator. Lots of major Mac applications are scriptable, but there are still some stunning omissions from companies you would expect to be onboard with Apple Script (I'm looking at you, Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro). The more people who take advantage of scripting via AppleScript or Automator, the more reasons there will be for laggard non-scriptable Apps to get with the program.

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