TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Tiger. Automator

Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 5
Column Tag: Programming

Getting Started

Tiger. Automator

by Dave Mark

In last month's column, we learned a bit about the bash shell, then played a bit with MySQL. I was originally planning on following that up in this month's column with an intro to combining MySQL and PHP. But in between then and now, I ended up moving my baseline machines over to Tiger and, well, I ended up spending just a boatload of time playing with Tiger. So much so, that I decided to postpone my PHP MySQL column for a month so I could write about my favorite new toy, Automator.

Getting Started with Automator

Automator is an application that ships with every copy of Mac OS X 10.4, a.k.a. Tiger. Contrary to popular belief, Automator is not a replacement for AppleScript. Automator is not a scripting environment. Rather, Automator is a powerful sequencer that allows you to sequence a series of commands, called actions, to create a custom workflow.

Still confused? No problem. Let's build a couple of workflows and you'll soon see the power of Automator.

Start by launching Automator. You'll find it just where you'd expect it, in your Applications folder. Figure 1 shows the Automator icon.

Figure 1. The Automator icon.

When you launch Automator, a new, untitled workflow window will appear (see Figure 2). The workflow window is divided into 5 main areas. The upper part of the window is called the toolbar. In the workflow window shown in Figure 2, the toolbar consists of the search field (on the left), and the dimmed Run and Stop buttons (on the right).

Below the search field is the library. The library is a list of applications that support Automator, as well as example and saved workflows. An application is said to support Automator by shipping with its own set of Automator actions. For example, in Figure 2's library, iTunes is selected, and the action list (just to the right of the library list) shows all the actions that shipped with iTunes. Each time you re-launch it, Automator steps through your list of installed applications and rebuilds its library and action lists.

    Want to build your own actions? Check out Ben Waldie's excellent Mac OS X Technology Guide to Automator. The first half covers the details of using Automator. The second half tells you everything you need to know to roll your own actions, in either AppleScript or Objective-C. $14.95 for the eBook, $29.95 for the print book. Here's the link:

    If you've got an existing app and are even thinking about adding Automator support now or in the future, the first thing you should do is make your app scriptable. Making your app scriptable allows/encourages others to write scripts and create actions that incorporate your application into their own workflows. Once people use your app in an essential workflow, they are much less likely to switch to a competing product. Brilliant!

In addition to the toolbar, library, and action areas, the workflow window also features a workflow area and a description area. As you'll see, the workflow is where all the work gets done. We'll build a sample workflow next. In Figure 2, the workflow area says Drag or add actions here to build your workflow. The description area contains a description of the currently selected action. In Figure 2, the description area describes the action Start iTunes Playing.

Figure 2. An untitled Automator workflow window.

Building a Workflow

Nothing will connect the synapses in your brain more than actually running Automator through its paces. Let's build a workflow. Our first workflow will prompt you to select a folder, compress the folder into a .zip archive, then create a new mail message and attach the archive to the message.

In your workflow window, click on Finder in the Library list. A list of all the currently available Finder actions will appear in the Action list. Click and drag the action named Ask for Finder Items from the Action list into the workflow area (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Adding the Ask for Finder Items action to the workflow.

As you can see in Figure 3, the Ask for Finder Items action is represented by a subpane in the workflow area. Each action comes with its own user interface and an appropriate description in the description area (lower left area of the window). Each action is numbered. As you can see in the upper-left corner of this action, the action is number 1 in our workflow sequence.

Since we want our action to prompt for a folder, select Folders from the Type: popup menu. I selected Desktop from the Start at: popup so the Finder would start prompting me at the desktop. I changed my prompt to say Choose a Folder: and I left the Allow Multiple Selection checkbox unchecked.

To test this workflow, click on the Run button on the right side of the toolbar (top of window). A panel will appear, prompting you to choose a folder (see Figure 4). Maneuver your way to a folder you like, then click the Choose button. Note that you are only allowed to select a folder, not a file, and that multiple selections are not allowed. Just as you specified. When you click the Choose button, the workflow stops.

Figure 4. This panel appears when you first run your workflow.

Not very exciting, but it does what it was supposed to. It prompted me for a folder. Since Ask for Finder Items is our only action, once we clicked Choose or Cancel, the workflow exits. Sure would be nice to be able to get a bit of feedback, make sure things are running properly. One way to do this is to open the log window. Select Show Log from the View menu. Figure 5 shows my log window after I ran my workflow. Note that the log window is extensible (drag the little dot at the bottom of the window) and that it is wiped at the beginning of each run session.

Figure 5. Automator's log window.

The log window is useful in tracking your progress, but it doesn't really show the result. In this example, it would be nice to get some feedback that Automator got the right folder. Automator provides an action, called View Results, that gives a bit of detail on the values returned by the previous action.

Click on the Automator entry in the library list, then drag the View Results action to the bottom of your workflow. Click the Run button. When prompted, select a folder and click the Choose button. Notice that the View Results action displays (see Figure 6) an AppleScript-looking result that reflects the folder you chose. You can select this text and copy it to the clipboard, if you ever find the need.

Figure 6. Adding the View Results action.

Take a closer look at the area, about 2/3 of the way across the action (from left to right), where the two actions actually connect. Figure 7 focuses in on this area. This area shows the type of data being passed along by the top action and expected by the bottom action. Notice that they match. Both actions are dealing with the same data type. As long as the types match, the data will get passed as expected and everything will end up just peachy-keen. If you pick an action that expects a different data type than you are passing, Automator will flag this by displaying the types in red and barking furiously (well, OK, not that last part). There will be times when you don't care about type mismatches (for example, if you are just ignoring the input) but that glaring red warning sign is really nice to have.

Figure 7. The interface between two actions.

Let's finish off our workflow. In the library list, click on Finder. In the action list, drag the action Create Archive into the middle of your workflow, below Ask for Finder Items but above View Results. Note that Automator automatically renumbers your actions so Create Archive becomes number two.

Figure 8 shows my version of the Create Archive action. Notice that this action features an Options disclosure triangle, which I've opened. Not all actions have Options. Worth looking for it, though. The Show Action When Run checkbox lets you customize the action's user interface, having the action prompt you for some or all of the settings instead of using the settings you specify.

Figure 8. The Create Archive action.

If you run the action again, you'll be prompted to choose a folder and that folder's contents will be saved as a .zip archive.

Let's add one last action. In the library, select Mail. In the Mail action list, select New Mail Message. Drag it below Create Archive and above View Results. Figure 9 shows my version of this action. Notice the options available to you. Run the workflow. You'll be prompted for a folder, the folder contents will be archived, a new email message will be created with the specified settings and the archive will be attached to the message. Cool beans! Now you're getting a real sense of the power of Automator. I totally love this app. Nicely done, Apple.

Figure 9. The New Mail Message action.

Take a Bow, BBEdit

One thing you'll notice as you look through the library list, is that nestled in among all the Apple applications that feature their own actions is our old buddy BBEdit. By the time you read this, there are sure to be other apps that ship with their own actions, but BBEdit was the first third party application to ship with Automator in mind. Figure 10 shows a list of the BBEdit actions.

Note that you'll need to have BBEdit 8.2 or later installed in order for the BBEdit actions to show up in Automator. Don't have BBEdit? Download the demo from It doesn't suck!

Figure 10. The BBEdit actions.

One Final Example

I know this column is running a bit long, but I just can't help myself. Gotta do one more example. I think this one is very cool.

Start by launching iCal. In the Calendar menu, select Subscribe..., then enter this URL:


Now click the Subscribe button. Your calendar should be populated with a new, weekly item called DVD Releases. Wouldn't it be cool if you could access that info in BBEdit? Maybe use BBEdit's actions to format the list in some cool way, then send the list as an email to your DVD-swapping buddies? Well, I'm not going to do all that work for you, but I will get you started.

In Automator, close any open workflows, then create a new, untitled workflow by selecting New from the File menu.

In the library list, click on iCal. Drag the action Find iCal Items to the workflow area. From the Find: popup menu, select Events. Notice that the action name changed to Find Events in iCal. Now make the Whose: sequence of popups read Calendar, then Is, then DVD Releases.

Now drag another iCal item, Event Summary, into the workflow, below the first action. In the For: popup menu, select This Week.

Finally, click on BBEdit in the library list, then drag the action New BBEdit Document to the end of your workflow. Figure 11 shows my final workflow.

Figure 11. The BBEdit workflow.

Go ahead and run the workflow. Note that the Event Summary action can take a while to cook through all the new DVDs. Figure 12 shows the BBEdit window that appeared when I ran my workflow. Note that I have my BBEdit prefs set to soft-wrap at 80 columns.

Figure 12. The new releases in a BBEdit window.

Until Next Month...

There is just so much you can do with Automator. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to clean up the DVD listings. You'll want to take a look at the BBEdit actions Concatenate, Search and Replace (use grep), Delete Lines Containing, and Sort Lines. Of course, there are any number of ways to skin this cat.

Want to learn more about Automator? I already mentioned Ben Waldie's book ( Here's a pair of web sites dedicated to Automator:

These sites are both well worth the visit. Lots of great examples, downloads, and other great resources. Enjoy, and see you next month!

Dave Mark is a long-time Mac developer and author and has written a number of books on Macintosh development. Dave has been writing for MacTech since its birth! Be sure to check out the new Learn C on the Macintosh, Mac OS X Edition at


Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Microsoft Office 2016 16.11 - Popular pr...
Microsoft Office 2016 - Unmistakably Office, designed for Mac. The new versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and OneNote provide the best of both worlds for Mac users - the familiar Office... Read more
Adobe Photoshop CC 2018 19.1.2 - Profess...
Photoshop CC 2018 is available as part of Adobe Creative Cloud for as little as $19.99/month (or $9.99/month if you're a previous Photoshop customer). Adobe Photoshop CC 2018, the industry standard... Read more
Adobe Dreamweaver CC 2018 -...
Dreamweaver CC 2018 is available as part of Adobe Creative Cloud for as little as $19.99/month (or $9.99/month if you're a previous Dreamweaver customer). Adobe Dreamweaver CC 2018 allows you to... Read more
Adobe Flash Player - Plug-in...
Adobe Flash Player is a cross-platform, browser-based application runtime that provides uncompromised viewing of expressive applications, content, and videos across browsers and operating systems.... Read more
Drive Genius 5.2.0 - $79.00
Drive Genius features a comprehensive Malware Scan. Automate your malware protection. Protect your investment from any threat. The Malware Scan is part of the automated DrivePulse utility. DrivePulse... Read more
MegaSeg 6.0.6 - Professional DJ and radi...
MegaSeg is a complete solution for pro audio/video DJ mixing, radio automation, and music scheduling with rock-solid performance and an easy-to-use design. Mix with visual waveforms and Magic... Read more
ffWorks 1.0.7 - Convert multimedia files...
ffWorks (was iFFmpeg), focused on simplicity, brings a fresh approach to the use of FFmpeg, allowing you to create ultra-high-quality movies without the need to write a single line of code on the... Read more
Dash 4.1.5 - Instant search and offline...
Dash is an API documentation browser and code snippet manager. Dash helps you store snippets of code, as well as instantly search and browse documentation for almost any API you might use (for a full... Read more
Evernote 7.0.3 - Create searchable notes...
Evernote allows you to easily capture information in any environment using whatever device or platform you find most convenient, and makes this information accessible and searchable at anytime, from... Read more
jAlbum Pro 15.3 - Organize your digital...
jAlbum Pro has all the features you love in jAlbum, but comes with a commercial license. You can create gorgeous custom photo galleries for the Web without writing a line of code! Beginner-friendly... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Around the Empire: What have you missed...
Oh hi nice reader, and thanks for popping in to check out our weekly round-up of all the stuff that you might have missed across the Steel Media network. Yeah, that's right, it's a big ol' network. Obviously 148Apps is the best, but there are some... | Read more »
All the best games on sale for iPhone an...
It might not have been the greatest week for new releases on the App Store, but don't let that get you down, because there are some truly incredible games on sale for iPhone and iPad right now. Seriously, you could buy anything on this list and I... | Read more »
Everything You Need to Know About The Fo...
In just over a week, Epic Games has made a flurry of announcements. First, they revealed that Fortnite—their ultra-popular PUBG competitor—is coming to mobile. This was followed by brief sign-up period for interested beta testers before sending out... | Read more »
The best games that came out for iPhone...
It's not been the best week for games on the App Store. There are a few decent ones here and there, but nothing that's really going to make you throw down what you're doing and run to the nearest WiFi hotspot in order to download it. That's not to... | Read more »
Death Coming (Games)
Death Coming Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: (iTunes) Description: --- Background Story ---You Died. Pure and simple, but death was not the end. You have become an agent of Death: a... | Read more »
Hints, tips, and tricks for Empires and...
Empires and Puzzles is a slick match-stuff RPG that mixes in a bunch of city-building aspects to keep things fresh. And it's currently the Game of the Day over on the App Store. So, if you're picking it up for the first time today, we thought it'd... | Read more »
What You Need to Know About Sam Barlow’s...
Sam Barlow’s follow up to Her Story is #WarGames, an interactive video series that reimagines the 1983 film WarGames in a more present day context. It’s not exactly a game, but it’s definitely still interesting. Here are the top things you should... | Read more »
Pixel Plex Guide - How to Build Better T...
Pixel Plex is the latest city builder that has come to the App Store, and it takes a pretty different tact than the ones that came before it. Instead of being in charge of your own city by yourself, you have to work together with other players to... | Read more »
Fortnite Will Be Better Than PUBG on Mob...
Before last week, if you asked me which game I prefer between Fortnite Battle Royale and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), I’d choose the latter just about 100% of the time. Now that we know that both games are primed to hit our mobile screens... | Read more »
Siege of Dragonspear (Games)
Siege of Dragonspear 2.5.12 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $9.99, Version: 2.5.12 (iTunes) Description: Experience the Siege of Dragonspear, an epic Baldur’s Gate tale, filled with with intrigue, magic, and monsters.... | Read more »

Price Scanner via

Sunday Sales: $200 off 13″ Touch Bar MacBook...
Amazon has new 2017 13″ 3.1GHz Touch Bar MacBook Pros on sale this weekend for $200 off MSRP, each including free shipping: – 13″ 3.1GHz/256GB Space Gray MacBook Pro (MPXV2LL/A): $1599.99 $200 off... Read more
B&H drops prices on 15″ MacBook Pros up t...
B&H Photo has dropped prices on new 2017 15″ MacBook Pros, now up to $300 off MSRP and matching Adorama’s price drop yesterday. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax for NY & NJ... Read more
Apple restocks Certified Refurbished 2017 13″...
Apple has restocked Certified Refurbished 2017 13″ 2.3GHz MacBook Pros for $200-$230 off MSRP. A standard Apple one-year warranty is included with each MacBook, models receive new outer cases, and... Read more
13″ Space Gray Touch Bar MacBook Pros on sale...
Adorama has new 2017 13″ Space Gray Touch Bar MacBook Pros on sale for $150 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and Adorama charges sales tax in NY & NJ only: – 13″ 3.1GHz/256GB Space Gray MacBook Pro (... Read more
Best deal of the year on 15″ Apple MacBook Pr...
Adorama has New 2017 15″ MacBook Pros on sale for up to $300 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and Adorama charges sales tax in NJ and NY only: – 15″ 2.8GHz Touch Bar MacBook Pro Space Gray (MPTR2LL/A): $... Read more
Save $100-$150+ on 13″ Touch Bar MacBook Pros...
B&H Photo has 13″ Touch Bar MacBook Pros on sale for $100-$150 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax for NY & NJ residents only: – 13″ 3.1GHz/256GB Space Gray MacBook Pro... Read more
Current deals on 27″ Apple iMacs, models up t...
B&H Photo has 27″ iMacs on sale for up to $150 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax for NY & NJ residents only: – 27″ 3.8GHz iMac (MNED2LL/A): $2149 $150 off MSRP – 27″ 3... Read more
Thursday Deal: 13″ 2.3GHz MacBook Pro for $11...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.3GHz/128GB Space Gray MacBook Pro on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax for NY & NJ residents only: – 13-inch 2.3GHz/128GB Space... Read more
How to save $100-$190 on 10″ & 12″ iPad P...
Apple is now offering Certified Refurbished 2017 10″ and 12″ iPad Pros for $100-$190 off MSRP, depending on the model. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: –... Read more
Silver 12″ 1.3GHz MacBook on sale at B&H...
B&H Photo has the 2017 12″ 1.3GHz Silver MacBook on sale for $1399.99 including free shipping plus sales tax for NY & NJ residents only. Their price is $200 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Genius - Technical Customer Service...
Job Description:Job SummaryAs a Genius at the Apple Store, you maintain customers' trust in Apple as the skilled technical customer service expert, Read more
*Apple* Endpoint Administrator - Massachuset...
Reporting to the Director of Client Services (DCS), the Apple Endpoint Administrator serves as a member of the Client Services team, which provides technical support Read more
Franchise Operations Advisor- *APPLE* Exper...
UFG, Inc. Franchise Operations Advisor - MUST HAVE APPLE OR WINDOWS EXPERIENCE (Outside Sales / Business Development / Customer Service / Full Time) Top Five Reasons Read more
Engineering- Platform- *Apple* Enterprise P...
…& RESPONSIBILITIES You are responsible for creating and supporting our next-gen Apple Platform Installers from ground-up. We use Jamf Composer tool along with Read more
*Apple* OS X Server Administrator (Active Se...
Apple OS X Server Administrator \(Active Secret Clearance\) Description Come be a part of a top notch team, apply today\!\! Tuva TUVA provides turnkey solutions that Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.