When Apple made the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, one of the under-the-hood consequences was that Mac aliases—tiny files that point to other files—lost some functionality. Or to put it more accurately, many of the Unix underpinnings of OS X don’t support Mac OS aliases: Unix programs and services see a Mac alias as just a useless little file. To get similar functionality with classic-Mac-unfriendly code, you need to use Unix-style symbolic links (also called symlinks or soft links).
Why might you need to use symbolic links if you tend to stick to Mac apps? As an example, a search for “symbolic link” on our own Mac OS X Hints site provides over 100 results—many of these hints and tips require you to create symbolic links instead of Mac aliases.
The catch here is that while the Finder makes it easy to create aliases, it doesn’t provide a way to make symbolic links. The common approach to creating them is by using the
ln -s command in Terminal. This can be intimidating to the Terminal-averse, but even if you don’t mind using Terminal, doing so can be a hassle (or at least a mild inconvenience) if you’re currently working in the Finder.
A simpler alternative is the free SymbolicLinker. This OS X add-on—which is provided as a services plug-in for OS X 10.6 and later, and as a contextual-menu plug-in for OS X 10.5 and earlier—adds a Make Symbolic Link command to the Finder’s contextual menus. (In 10.5, the command is in the More submenu; in all other versions of OS X, it’s at the root level of the menu.) Just right-click or Control-click on an item in the Finder, choose Make Symbolic Link, and a link to that file is created. The link looks just like a Mac alias.
Exactly where the link is created depends on where the original item is located. It will usually appear in the same folder as the original file or folder; however, if you don’t have permission to create a new file in that directory, the link will be created on the Desktop. (I’d like to see an option to choose a default location for all new symlinks.) Wherever the link is created, you can then move it to wherever you like.
Be sure to read the included installation instructions, as the procedure differs depending on whether your Mac is running Snow Leopard (10.6) or an earlier version of OS X; in either case, it’s a straightforward process. If you occasionally find yourself creating symbolic links—or have ever wondered how to do so—SymbolicLinker is as easy as it gets.
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