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Long, long ago, the Mac introduced a major innovation to the computing world -- the "universal" clipboard. You could actually copy text in one application and paste it into another! Nowadays it's hard to imagine not being able to copy text from a Web page and paste it into an email message, or to copy and paste between Word and Excel. Unfortunately, as personal computing has advanced, the clipboard hasn't. For the most part, the clipboard is stuck in the 1980s.

    Note: I'm talking about the Mac OS's built-in clipboard. There are a number of excellent clipboard utilities out there, some of which I'll be covering here in Mac Gems. And for those who may not know what a clipboard is, it's the bit of memory on your computer that stores stuff when you copy or cut it so that you can paste it elsewhere.

In today's era of networked computers and multiple users, the next logical step is a truly universal clipboard, one that can be shared between computers and users. Although OS X doesn't provide such functionality, the donationware ClipboardSharing 2.0.2 (   ; ), by Erik Lagercrantz, does. Once you've launched ClipboardSharing on two or more computers -- it shows up as an icon in the menu bar -- those computers can share the contents of their clipboards with each other. Text, images, you name it...anything supported by Mac OS X's clipboard can be shared via ClipboardSharing.

You use ClipboardSharing to either send or get a clipboard -- you send the current contents of your clipboard to another computer, or you get the contents of that computer's clipboard. (If the Macs are on the same local network, they'll each show up in the other's ClipboardSharing menu; if not, you simply specify the IP address of the other computer when trying to access it.) You can even monitor sharing via notification dialogs: If you send the contents of your clipboard to another user, they see an alert window that reads " Username on Computer name has uploaded text to your clipboard." Similarly, if another user grabs the contents of your clipboard, you'll see an alert that reads " Username on Computer name has downloaded text from your clipboard."

Although sharing clipboards between computers is very cool, one of my favorite features of ClipboardSharing relates to multiple users of the same computer. I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to copy content in one account and then paste it in another; I've always been reduced to creating clipping files or text documents and then dropping those files into the other user's Public folder Drop Box. But if you take advantage of Mac OS X 10.3's Fast User Switching feature, you can launch ClipboardSharing under different accounts on the same Mac simultaneously and then share clipboards between those accounts! Now when I want to transfer content between user accounts, I simply copy the content in the source account and use the Send My Clipboard command to send it to the other. (I also like ClipboardSharing's AutoSync feature, which lets you automatically synchronize the clipboard between specific computers or user accounts.)

If you're not as clipboard crazy as I am and you're scratching your head wondering how in the world you might use such a utility, here are some examples of ways in which I've used ClipboardSharing in the past few days:

  • I transfered information from an Address Book contact on my desktop Mac to an iChat chat I was having on my PowerBook.
  • I wanted to show a coworker a URL and some text; I was about to send it via email when I realized I could do it much more quickly using ClipboardSharing.
  • I launched an application in a second account on my Mac and got an error that it wasn't yet registered (even though it was already registered in my main account). The registration number was contained in an email in my main account; instead of writing the number down on paper while in one account and then re-typing it in the second, I copied the number to the clipboard in one and then grabbed it from the other.

To keep people from surreptitiously adding or copying content to or from your clipboard, ClipboardSharing also provides several security features. You can use any number of condition-based rules to restrict access to your clipboard. Conditions include the name of the remote computer, the remote user's username, whether or not the other user is on the local network, clipboard size, and even the type of data on the clipboard. For each combination of conditions, you can choose to automatically deny or allow access, to pop up a dialog asking for confirmation, or even to run a shell script. ClipboardSharing also lets you specify a particular network port to be used for all clipboard connections.

Finally, as a bonus, ClipboardSharing can also store the contents of up to 50 recent clipboards. The only glitch in this feature is that when you select an older clipboard from the ClipboardSharing menu, it isn't pasted into the current application immediately, as you might expect. Rather, the older clipboard contents are moved to the current clipboard; you then need to paste normally.

ClipboardSharing has proven itself to be extremely useful and has found a permanent place in the menu bar of my computers.

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