Automator

One feature that's always intrigued me about OS X is how powerful yet fairly accessible of a scripting language AppleScript happens to be.  Despite its relative ease of use, I hardly ever found myself using AppleScript to get things done.  I never seemed to have enough time to sit down and become comfortable enough with the language, regardless of how much easier it would make my life. 

Tiger brings another tool to the table that can work either with or in lieu of AppleScript for those who aren't interested in learning the language, and that tool is called Automator.  One underlying theme of features like Automator and Dashboard in Tiger is to take functionality that was essentially present in Panther, and make it something that's accessible and actually used by the masses in Tiger.  With Dashboard, Apple has taken many of the features of Sherlock - a rarely used and rarely talked about tool in Panther, and re-packaged them in a much more user friendly environment that is Dashboard.  With Automator, Apple has taken many of the types of tasks that you can accomplish using AppleScript and made them infinitely more user friendly.

To the end user, Automator is basically a drag-'n-drop batch job generator that happens to be very flexible.  Automator allows you to create a workflow of actions, with each action performing specific tasks on its inputs and passing it along to the next action.  For example, one of the actions that ships with Tiger is an action to get all image URLs from a web page in Safari.  With all of the image URLs, you can then feed them into another action to download all of the images to a specific folder.  You can then feed all of those images that you've just downloaded into another action that scales all images to a certain size.  The workflow that I've just described can be even more complicated, taking the scaled images and doing pretty much whatever you'd like with them - you can even nest workflows inside of other workflows to achieve even more robust results.  What's most important about Automator is that all of this is done in an extremely simple and easy-to-use manner. 

You select the category of action from the left; the actions are grouped according to what applications with which they are associated. Then, you select what action you want to perform and drag it into the right pane to add it to your workflow.  The workflow is linear and doesn't branch, so anything at the top of the workflow feeds into anything below it.  Automator handles all error checking and will warn you if your workflow is going to do something destructive to files or if you are feeding the results of one action into another that isn't compatible (e.g. sending image files into an action that is expecting a URL to be inputted).  You can also search for the action that you're looking for using the search box at the top of the Automator window. However, keep in mind that the search box doesn't search descriptions of the actions, just their titles - so searching for "resize" won't bring up anything, but searching for "scale" will bring up the scale images action (somewhat silly considering how big of a deal searching is within Tiger). 

Once you've created a workflow, you can save it as a workflow to be opened with Automator or you can save it as a plug-in that can be executed without ever running the Automator application.  I would strongly caution you to test your workflows on sample data that you don't care about before actually using it on something important.  The reason behind this warning is that some of the built-in actions don't work exactly that the way you'd expect them to.  For example, I tried creating a workflow that would take a bunch of selected images, make copies of them, rename them and resize them - a similar set of tasks that I would do on a regular basis for any AnandTech article.  The images that I was using for this particular task were on the desktop and I decided to just copy the items to the desktop as well.  The Copy Finder Items action has an option to replace existing files, which I left unchecked, assuming that it meant that my original files would not be overwritten.  Apparently, my assumption was incorrect, as the action did overwrite my original files.  I figured something like this would happen, so I used a picture that I didn't care too much about, but it can be confusing - it was to me, at least.

The potential for Automator is tremendous. However, I found myself wanting many more actions than what is supplied with Tiger.  Although Apple has pretty good documentation on their developer site of how to create your own actions, doing so basically nullifies one of the major attractions to Automator, which is bringing this sort of automated functionality to the masses.  There are presently some Automator actions that are available for download from Apple's web site.  With further development and support from the community, Automator could very well become one of the most useful items in Tiger, but as it stands now, I'm not sure how much use the majority of users will get out of it. 

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  • melgross - Sunday, May 01, 2005 - link

    #21 With all that you said, you didn't really say very much.

    Yes, it's true that Apple is mostly a hardware company. They will sell "only" a billion dollars of software this year.

    But what you forget is that every Mac that sells takes away a sale of a copy of Windows from MS. Apple will sell more that a million more computers this year than they sold last year. That's over a million fewer copies of Windows sold. As well as less copies of windows software by MS and others. It also means more copies of MS Office for the Mac sold.

    It's just dumb talking about "balls". This is a business. Maybe you like to play chicken, but companies that like to stay in business don't.

    Perhaps if Apple licensed the Mac OS to MS both times when MS came knocking on their door life would have been different. :)
    Reply
  • michael2k - Saturday, April 30, 2005 - link

    #21: If anyone compares Longhorn to Tiger, it's because Microsoft has decided it's a valid comparison:
    http://insight.zdnet.co.uk/software/0,39020463,391...

    Allchin has made public comments regarding Tiger, when talking about Longhorn.

    On a technical level, Longhorn is implementing many of the features that Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar have, so comparison is unavoidable:

    Avalon vs Quartz
    Metro vs PDF
    DB/WinFS vs Spotlight/HFS+
    etc
    Reply
  • Eug - Saturday, April 30, 2005 - link

    #20: "So while Apple keeps braying to the moon about "Longhorn" I, on the other hand, am content to wait until Longhorn actually ships before making any sort of comparisons as I would prefer any comparisons that might be made to have some *meaning*...;)"

    Uh... I should point out that the Apple Mac OS X pages don't have a single reference to Longhorn anywhere, AFAIK.
    Reply
  • Ocaid - Saturday, April 30, 2005 - link

    The fact, "Jack", is that this is marketing and Apple does make nice hardware and a great OS for some people. And I do agree with some of your salient points. But for a company that "is not a direct competitor to MS", some of you guys sure seem to worry a lot about them. Reply
  • WaltC - Saturday, April 30, 2005 - link

    I completely fail to understand this comparison with Longhorn...;) I mean, at one level I do understand it all too well--Apple PR, while completely ignoring Windows x64 as if it does not exist, enjoys boasting that it has "beaten" Longhorn out of the starting gate as a "64-bit" OS--but really this is just so very lame and completely transparent. Apple has always had an exquisite case of tunnel vision when it comes to picking and choosing what it will compare its products to...:D

    So this whole "Longhorn-Tiger" comparison is so predictible and infantile (as Tiger is shipping and Longhorn isn't--so nobody has a clue as to what Longhorn will be when it actually does ship a year or two from now) and right on par for Apple PR. So typical of Apple to compare its products with products that aren't shipping--wow, how much "safer" can you can get than that? So while Apple keeps braying to the moon about "Longhorn" I, on the other hand, am content to wait until Longhorn actually ships before making any sort of comparisons as I would prefer any comparisons that might be made to have some *meaning*...;)

    In this vein, I also wish that people would wake up and realize that Apple and Microsoft are not now direct competitors and never have been...;) Microsoft is software company--Apple is distinctly a hardware company--and the old saw in the industry is that the highest and best purpose for *any* Mac OS is that it serves as a dongle to protect and promote Apple's hardware sales.

    The classic mistake that I see so often is this misunderstanding that Microsoft and Apple somehow compete in the same markets--not true. Apple's competitors in reality are companies like Dell, etc., who--unlike Microsoft--make better than 90% of their net income from hardware sales. It's pretty simple, really, as >98% of Microsoft's net income is from the sale of software exclusive of hardware. The difference is so vast I am surprised it is so often overlooked. And yet it is...

    For instance, if Apple would decide to undertake to write an OS for the same x86 hardware standards that Microsoft does (Intel/AMD promulgated standards, mainly) *then* we could call them competitors with a straight face since they'd be competing for share in the same hardware markets. But the simple fact is that Microsoft doesn't even *make* the computers which run its OS's (and so of course cannot and does not profit directly from such hardware sales); but an Apple OS, on the other hand, is totally useless in the absence of an Apple designed-and-sold computer to run it. The enormous differences ought to be clear as daylight to everyone.

    Basically, the concept that an Apple OS is any sort of direct competition to a Microsoft OS is purely a wishful and irresponsible--not to mention inaccurate--fantasy. That's why talking about Apple's <3% share of the annual world-wide *desktop* computer market (which is far, far less in the exclusive server markets, or higher in the notebook markets, etc.)is somewhat of a bogus comparison in the first place. MS OS's serve "everybody else" apart from Microsoft (eg, Dell and the thousands of other companies manufacturing x86 PCs and components exclusive of Microsoft) while Apple's OS's serve only Apple-branded hardware exclusively. I am always surprised as to why this salient fact of the matter is so often ignored. But there it is...

    I'd love to see Apple competing directly with Microsoft in the much larger hardware arena of x86 platforms and standards--I would welcome the competition. But I honestly don't think Apple can compete in that market--and I believe that's exactly why Apple doesn't even try. I'd love to see Apple offer its own Apple-branded x86 PCs along with an Apple x86 OS which would run on "everybody else's" x86 box just as Microsoft's OS's currently do--but I'll tell you right now that I'm not going to hold my breath waiting on that to happen as I don't believe it ever will. Frankly, I don't believe Apple has either the balls or the brains or the will to do it--and that's the fact, Jack...:D
    Reply
  • michael2k - Saturday, April 30, 2005 - link

    #11: Obviously the article is not meant for you then. Does it occur to you that there are other reasons to use computers than play games? Video games are not the end all and be all of the computing experience. Reply
  • HansZarkow - Saturday, April 30, 2005 - link

    Repeatedly reading about how buggy Tiger is makes me wonder, why Apple pushed the release. Panther was doing alright and Apple is generally rather thorough when it comes to that.

    I think Tiger was originally to be released in 2H05 around the same time that Longhorn was scheduled. Then Microsoft pushed the release date back a year. Now Apple faced the situation that they couldn't release 10.5 only a year after 10.4.
    So not only wouldn't they be able to react to some features that Longhorn might bring along, but they would also leave Microsoft an undistored PR-window where they would be mere spectators.

    Hence, Apple rushed the Tiger-release to 1H05, approximately 18 months after Panther. That gives them another 18 months to fine-tune 10.4 and come up with an answer to every feature that Longhorn might pack.
    It's the price of being Apple, the (self-proclaimed) technology-leader, they can't let Microsoft talk about the (possible) advantages of Longhorn for half a year.

    This makes sense from a PR point-of-view, but it is definetly unfair to the people buying 10.4 because I doubt it will see its full potential before 10.4.3
    Reply
  • vailr - Saturday, April 30, 2005 - link

    #13: Not correct! My 3.2 GHz P4/WinXP machine can run PearPC/MacOSX 10.3.9, with "About this Mac" info indicating that it's a "Mac G3 running at 1.32 GHz".
    So, would be interested to see whether: WinXP64/PearPC/MacOSX 10.4, running on an "upper echelon" AMD64 chip could compete, speedwise, with OSX Tiger, running on native Mac hardware?
    Reply
  • jasonsRX7 - Saturday, April 30, 2005 - link

    I don't know if it's just because I'm more used to it, but I still like Quicksilver better than Spotlight. I find QS to be faster and more functional. Maybe Spotlight just needs to grow on me some more. Reply
  • DerekWilson - Saturday, April 30, 2005 - link

    #15 ... is that a joke (and coincedence) or an attempt to bring up the legal suit being brought against Apple by Tiger Direct for the use of the Tiger name?

    Haven't kept up with that much myself -- though it did seem fishy that they waited until this week to bring up the issue.

    http://apple.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/04/28/...
    Reply

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