Friday, March 28, 2008

Book Review - Visual Quickstart Guide for Automator

Automator for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard

Visual Quickstart Guide - Ben Waldie

Automator is one of the small apps supplied within OS X that, let's face it, most of us never get round to opening, let alone alone using regularly. The promise is there to liberate us from the tedium of repetitive familiar tasks and yet the learning curve seems quite steep when the app is run. The latest version of Automator, with Leopard, has a cute robot motif but, of course, no printed instruction manual - out of the box, it's all down to you and the Help files. Fine if you know what questions to ask, and are happy with online or on-screen instructions, which are, shall we say, sparse.

The Visual Quickstart guide seems designed to fill this gap, to act as a hand-holder for novices, and as a practical reference for intermediate users. It follows the format of other books in the series (which includes the recommended Lisa Brenneis guides to Final Cut, copies of which must be on every editor's desks), with plenty of screen shots and a straightforward, one step at a time, walk through the steps required to achieve what's required. Early chapters deal with simple jobs: taking the reader through the interface, building basic workflows, working with 'Actions' which are the fundamental procedures that Automator includes. This approach works well for me, it's a useful second stage to my first approach to any new app (in concise terms: run it, press all the buttons, see what breaks, see how quickly I get lost), and I appreciate the structured progression of the book.

Later chapters plunge deeper - or at least, as deep as Automator currently allows. There are good walk-through examples of saving Workflows (Automator's equivalent of a project), as applications or plug-ins, and the advanced features of integrating Automator with Applescript and running Shell scripts. These advanced features are the most promising development in Automator with Leopard, and this guide does a fair job of introducing them - but to use UNIX scripts especially requires a good deal of background knowledge, and familiarity with Terminal commands.

What drawbacks there are lie not with the book itself, but with Automator. The app performs well with those 'Actions' allowed it by other applications in the system. So for Safari, for instance, there are a range of actions related to current URLs and Feeds, that can be passed on by an Automator workflow for further processing. Automator is well endowed with file-type actions: most examples on the Apple website, and in this guide, relate in some way to graphics files (re-sizing, converting format, changing name to include date). Maybe this is because there's a lot of tedious work, for sure, to be done with graphics files, which tend to arrive in the dozens or hundreds. But not all applications offer hooks for Automator. One on my system that does is Fetch, an ftp program - but Firefox, for example, offers nought.

Another limitation to bear in mind is that Automator isn't quite a scripting environment, and certainly not a programming one. It is possible to build workflows with variables that can be passed between blocks, and there are looping facilities, but beyond that it's necessary to integrate AppleScript or Shell commands. Conditional branching, for instance, or Boolean operators, don't exist as such within Automator Actions. What's most obviously missing is a method of debugging workflows - my first attempts generated Error Codes but with no means of interpreting what the errors were. To do much beyond the simplest of repetitive actions, it's the very deep waters of Xcode and the resources in the Apple Development Centre (ADC).

Maybe it's not possible to have the best of both worlds. If you want the flexibility and programmability that comes with programming a shell script, that comes with the price tag of acquiring the knowledge of same and working at a terminal shell. If you want a modest set of defined actions and a simple way of putting the building blocks together, the flexibility has to be curtailed. Within the limitations of the allowed actions, then, Automator offers a highly visual and intuitive method of building a sequence of actions to form a workflow. It's not the cold bath that a sudden exposure to C or Ruby scripting offers, and if you need a helping hand into the warm waters, the Visual Quickstart Guide is for you.

------Phil Ashby

I'll be going into more detail about Automator and the book at the next wefcpug meeting, which is Monday 7th April.