hello, applescript: what’s the use?
If you’re not sure whether you want to invest time in learning AppleScript, this post is for you. Here I’ll outline four good reasons to learn AppleScript. I’m sure they’re not the only ones, but they’re the main ones that come to my mind as a daily user of the language. If, after reading this post, you want to give it a try, be sure to follow this series, as we’ll be quickly moving on with hands-on examples and detailed explanations that will rapidly turn you into an AppleScript power user! At the end of this post, I’ll briefly discuss tools, so that you’re ready to get started when the next in this series, User In, User Out, is published.
First of all, AppleScript can interact with other applications. That means it can get one app to perform a function and pipe the result to another app to perform a different function that the first app didn’t have. There’s no limit to the number of apps and functions you can chain together in this way (other than your computer’s resources). Why would you want to chain apps together like that?
To achieve things that none of those apps can do on their own.
Imagine this scenario (scripts for this appear later in this series of posts): Suppose you run a small business and customer orders come in via email. With an AppleScript, you can have those emails automatically scanned, the customers’ order details extracted, and your Excel or Numbers spreadsheet updated accordingly. You could then have the product details forwarded to another person (Packaging?) and the customer details forwarded to a third (Marketing?). Your script could tell Word, or Pages, to print out a label, and tell Mail to now send an automated response back to the customer. There is no one program on your computer that can accomplish all that, but you can, with AppleScript.
Once set up, none of this requires any interaction on your part. You build the script, test it, and add it as a Mail rule. The rest happens automatically when the mail arrives in your Inbox; you don’t need to monitor it. You can go on holiday. This ability to automate is what makes AppleScript so unique.
AppleScript’s ability to chain or pipe application functions together is similar to the Unix command line ability to pipe utilities together, only it allows you to do it with full-blown applications. But you can use it to connect those applications to command line utilities, too. This is the second thing that makes AppleScript unique: integration across the entire macOS environment. You can even chain it to other programming languages.
For example, I could have AppleScript run some Python code, take the result and run that through a Perl script, and take the result of that and display it to the user (or myself) in a dialog box or notification (or send an email, or a Chat message, etc). And I can do that without having to mess about worrying how to create graphical user interface elements like you might do with Tcl/Tk (if you know what that is; if you don’t, forget it!).
The relationship between AppleScript and the shell is symbiotic. If you’re a shell diehard, you’ll be happy to know that you can actually create and execute AppleScripts in
.sh files without ever going near an AppleScript editor.
AppleScript can not only harness the power of other scripting languages, it can harness the power of macOS itself. The AppleScript-ObjectiveC bridge means you could, if you wanted to – and many programmers do – create full on native macOS Cocoa apps without ever getting into the intricacies of Xcode projects and workspaces. You can even code sign your AppleScript apps from within the script editor.
Finally, AppleScript can drive the user interface and even drive apps that haven’t been specifically made to support AppleScript. If you find yourself repeatedly doing the same actions in the UI to achieve a task, you can cut-out the middle-man (you!) and tell AppleScript to click those buttons, move those windows or copy that text from Safari and paste it into Pages instead of laboriously and repeatedly doing it yourself. This creates an eery effect not unlike those old-time pianolas.
Where’s the catch? To achieve the level of automation and time-saving we’ve been discussing, you’re going to have to invest some time up front learning how to script. It won’t always be easy, and you won’t always be happy that it’s not easy, but that’s the price of investing in learning anything.
If you’re ready to learn this amazing, unique language, let’s get tooled up!
I’ll keep this short. You can learn AppleScript the hard way using the built-in Script Editor, or you can learn AppleScript the easier way by using the free 3rd-party editor Script Debugger.
Script Debugger gives you a full-featured trial for 20 days, and after that if you don’t want to buy it you lose some of the more advanced features but you can use the rest indefinitely anyway. It works in rather the same way as BBEdit’s trial does, if you’re familiar with that.
If you save scripts in Script Debugger (so long as they’re not debug scripts, more on that later), you can run (and edit) them in Script Editor and vice versa. In other words, you’re not locked in to a proprietary tool.
I’m not even going to consider that you’d choose to learn AppleScript the hard way since the easier way is free, so all the examples in this series of posts will use Script Debugger. However, unless otherwise marked as SD-only or SD-paid-only, you can do all of the examples in the series in either tool.
Don’t worry, at this point, about how to use either Script Editor or Script Debugger. We’ll get into that in the next post: hello, applescript 2: User In, User Out. Follow Applehelpwriter to be notified when a new post is published.