Posted on Sun 17 October 2010

The Invisibles

I find it more than a little ironic that the company that first popularised the graphical user interface for computers develops an operating system that has very consistent keyboard shortcuts across most applications, making it easier to perform many operations directly from the keyboard.

Increasingly I’ve come to rely on many of these shortcuts and also to value applications that are driven from the keyboard and have almost no visible presence or graphical user interface. What follows is a brief description of some I use and rely on every day and some of the reasons why I appreciate their qualities.

Apple retro
Photo by Stuart Caie

LaunchBar

LaunchBar is a launcher application for OS X but it does so much more than just launch applications and open files. It may be used to perform all the following using the same interface:

  • Search for text on the internet using any search engine or searching sites like iTunes and Amazon directly
  • Move, copy and delete files
  • Send text to applications or open files with different applications
  • List the recent files used by applications and open them
  • Play music
  • Manage multiple clipboards
  • Send emails to address book contacts

and much more....

Launchbar

The application is invoked by typing a hotkey such as ⌘+space and then a string to represent what you want to do. So for instance ‘BB’ can be used to launch BBEdit or transfer the currently selected text to a BBEdit file. The clever bit is it automatically adapts to the shortcuts you use, and after a short time what you want to do is normally the first item on the list.

The best place to find out more about LaunchBar’s capabilities is the free series of video tutorials from ScreenCastsOnline. It’s a very capable application and it can quickly become something you depend on and are lost without.

Tying my shoelaces with one hand 2

Keyboard Maestro

I’ve written about Keyboard Maestro before and how I used it when I switched to Apple Mail in place of my beloved Mailsmith. That was limited to providing a way for Mail to use old-fashioned quoting of messages via John Gruber’s scripts but the application’s ability to create keyboard-triggered macros can do much more.

One of the ways I use this application is to replace standard application shortcuts because the Keyboard Maestro engine can intercept commands before the application. So for example, I prefer to use ⌘E to send the current mail message directly and it’s easy to associate this action with the Mail application without having to modify the OS X built-in keyboard shortcuts.

Similarly, I have created macros to change the layout of application windows in a ‘standard’ way where the application does not normally provide keyboard shortcuts.

⌘⌥→ Show sidebar / ⌘⌥←Hide sidebar

⌘⌥↓ Show menu / ⌘⌥↑Hide menu

And many more favourites...

⇧⌘V Paste plain text

F2 Check mail in all accounts

F12 Eject all mounted drives (handy when disconnecting a laptop several times a day)

⌥F12 Quit all open apps except PathFinder (handy if you have a family who never, ever quit applications!)

TextSoap

People smarter than me recommended TextSoap and I must admit I just didn’t get it the first time I tried it. It seemed too specialised and I couldn’t see the advantages for the cost involved. I tried again and eventually it all snapped into place. Up until that point if I wanted to make changes to text, such as to ‘educate’ quotes, change case or increase line space I would usually take the text on a round-trip through a text editor, perhaps writing a regular expression to make the required changes, and then copying the text back to where it first came from.

TextSoap 1

TextSoap changes this dramatically because it offers more than 100 built-in text transformations and these are available directly in most applications or anywhere that text is entered. In a few cases the applications installs a nifty plug-in like the one above, which I’ve configured to list the ones I use most often. In other applications the transformations are available through OS X ‘Services’ which are available system-wide. What are services?

Services are features exported by your application for the benefit of other applications. Services let you share the resources and capabilities of your application with other applications in the system.

What this means is that in most applications these text transformations can be reached through the services menu or by right-clicking on selected text. Having looked for a Windows equivalent to TextSoap, there is nothing like this available for any other platform as far as I know and it’s a great illustration of the power of OS X.

TextSoap 2

Witch

Witch does one thing, but it does it very well indeed. It lets you switch directly to the window you want to work with via hot keys. While OS X comes with an application switcher using the keyboard, it does not allow selection of windows other than by cycling through each open window in turn. Witch allows pre-selection of minimised and hidden windows and also allows you to hide and minimise windows without having to jump to them first.

Witch

The Advantage?

What are the common factors that unite all these applications? They’re in the spirit of unix applications that do one thing well. They are certainly not free - some of them may even seem too expensive. What makes them really valuable is the way they integrate into a workflow, and the time saved from using them every single day and hundreds or thousands of times each week.

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