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hello, applescript: what’s the use?



In the first of a series of AppleScript tutorials, this post explains why you might want to consider learning 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.


1. Automation
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.


2. Integration
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.


3. Power
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.





4. God-mode
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.

Look no hands!



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!


Tools
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.

🙂


how to become an Apple app developer

Developing apps for iPhone, iPod, iPad, and Mac OS seems like the California gold-rush of the 21st century — the press are full of reports of the riches to be had in this amazing land, stories of “little people” making “big bucks”. Anyone can be an app developer, they say, but what’s the truth behind the hype, and how do you actually learn how to do it?

Last I heard, there were currently something like 600,000 apps on the Apple App store (for iPhone/iPad) and some 100,000 or so on the App store for Mac OS. Apple have paid out (i.e., passed on customer payments after taking their 30% cut) literally billions of dollars to developers. That’s a lot of cash! The question is, can you get a slice of it too?

In theory, there’s no reason why not. As I’ll detail below, the route to becoming an app developer is not particularly hard, nor is it particularly costly. But that doesn’t guarantee success. Anyone can write a book, but writing a killer book that’ll sell like Harry Potter is not so easy, and writing a killer app that will sell like Angry Birds is every bit as difficult.

The analogy holds for success in both cases: you need a great idea, you need to execute it well, and you need to market it properly. Did I mention those 600,000 apps on the App store? How, exactly, are you going to make your fortune if your app is buried in a pile like that? Well, I’ll save ideas and marketing for a future post. In this one, I want to focus on the things that we know we can achieve and only have to depend on ourselves for: developing the skills needed to turn that great idea into an actual piece of software that will run on Apple machines.

Learn the language
If you want to write a killer novel, the first thing you have to do is learn the language that you want to write the novel in, be it French, Chinese, or English. If you want to write a killer app, the same goes. Visual Basic? Visual C++? Java? Yes, that kind of thing except…if you’re developing for iOS (the iPhone/iPad operating system) or Mac OS (Mac computer operating system) you have to learn the Apple language, not any of those common ones associated with lesser machines!

So what is the Apple language? It’s called ‘Objective-C’, and it runs in a programming environment called ‘Cocoa’. You’ll need to learn ‘Cocoa’, but in order to learn that you’ll need to learn ‘Objective-C’, and to learn that, you’ll need to learn the basics of the standard (Ansi) C programming language. Oh my!

And once you’ve got a hold on all that, you’ll then need to learn Xcode, which isn’t a language or a programming environment at all, but a very sophisticated development tool (in fact, Xcode is itself an app!), in which you do all your Apple programming. You’re probably now thinking that it’d be easier to write that next Harry Potter novel and are already hunting around for the back of an envelope to start scratching down your ideas, but wait…

I know it sounds disheartening, but there is some good news. After all, it can’t be that hard if so many other people are doing it, right? (Well, actually, yeah it can, there’s a lot of dedicated programming geeks out there!). But look, I’ve been down this road too, and while I haven’t produced any killer apps (still waiting for that great idea…), I have gone from knowing next to nothing about programming to being able to put together an application that does what I tell it to and doesn’t crash my system.

(OK, not entirely true that I didn’t know anything about programming: in the 1980s, I once learned how to get a monochrome computer screen to print “Hello World” in BBC BASIC, which basically involved nothing other than typing >Print “Hello World”; it seemed so ridiculously pointless in 1982 that it turned me off programming for the next thirty years! Other than that, I’m a newbie 🙂 ).

And the good news gets better: most all of the documentation you need to learn how to be an app developer is available free from Apple. Truly, and I mean this with no trace of irony, it is hugely generous of Apple to put the amount of free material they have online for anyone to use. Want to be a Windows developer? Find your local bookstore and start shelling out one heck of a lot of $$$!! The cynical, of course, will say that Apple only do the giveaway to benefit themselves; others might say that giving away free training justifies their 30% cut.

I think of it as a symbiotic relationship: would-be developers who aren’t in computer science departments or big companies could never afford to buy all the material. Likewise, Apple could never have built an App store with such a huge number and wide variety of programs to Wow! their users if they had only had universities and commercial software developers to rely on. This way, both the little people, that’s me (and — I’m assuming — you), and Apple get to win.

I’ll tell you how to get started in a minute, but before I do let me point out that the ride is not entirely free. There’s probably a point at the beginning and certainly one at the end where you will need to lay out some of your hard-earned. So let’s deal with that now.

What you need
Right off, you’re going to need a Mac computer. Sorry, if you don’t already have one, you’re going to have to buy one; a low-range Macbook Air or Mac Mini will do, anything that can run OS X Lion. You can’t develop Mac apps on your iPhone or iPad, I’m afraid (but it does work the other way too: you don’t need an iPad or iPhone to develop apps for these devices. More on this below).

And what about if you have a good-spec PC? Yes, you could get a Mac emulator (VMmare) or mess around with OSx86, but frankly, these options are likely to cause you more grief than they’re worth; you could end up with apps that don’t build properly, and/or which breach Apple’s licensing conditions.

I’m not saying don’t do it, that’s your choice; I am saying your chances of successfully building an app, making it stable, and getting it accepted into the App store by Apple are significantly reduced if you go that route. Given the price of a basic Mac Mini on Ebay, you could well end up spending more money (as well as time) trying to avoid buying a Mac than just buying a cheap one.

The other expense you might need to lay out for is a basic ‘Intro to C’ book. There’s plenty of web offerings, but really a good ‘idiots’ book like the Dummies or Absolute Beginners should be enough and has the benefit of being reasonably likely to get you to the level of proficiency you need in the shortest amount of time. After that, you learn the rest for free (Objective-C, Cocoa, Xcode) from Apple. At the end of the process, when your app is built and you want to submit your app to the App store, you’ll have to register with Apple for a licence as an app developer and vendor; current cost $99.

Take the first step
“Sign me up”, you say, “where do I start?” The first thing to do is to sign up to Apple’s developer community: this is free (don’t confuse it with the Developer Program or Licensing, which costs $99 and which you don’t need till you’ve built an app you want to upload to the App store).

Once you’re in the Developer Community, download Xcode 4, Apple’s development environment (a different thing from a programming environment, but don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of all this terminology easily enough once you start reading the docs). This is a 4GB monster of a program – bigger than your average operating system, so make sure you have the space – and it is also free. Xcode comes with free iPhone and iPad simulators and in itself, this is a piece of software that’s probably worth a couple of thousand dollars. So smile: you’re already making a profit even though you bought that Mac Mini! This is also the reason why you don’t need, and in fact can’t use, your own iPad or iPhone to test your apps: everything has to be done in Xcode, and this monster app only runs on Mac OS X.

Once you’ve downloaded Xcode, you can play around with it if you want, but unless you’ve worked with an IDE (integrated development environment) before, it’s pretty complicated, so it’s best to wait till you work through the tutorials. It’s not the kind of software you can learn through serendipitous exploration.

Instead, go to the documentation resources and start with the tutorial Your First Mac Application.

By the time you get through this, you’re going to realise why you need to learn Ansi C, Objective-C and Cocoa. So put Xcode away for now, and start on the path of learning to speak Apple’s language. When you get there, just add 1 great idea + 1 great marketing strategy, and you’re on your way to California!



The short guide:

1. Get a Mac
2. Learn C, learn Objective-C, learn Cocoa, learn Xcode
3. Come up with an idea for a great app and plan it out carefully
4. Build and test your app
5. Pay the licensing fee and submit your app to Apple
6. Once it’s been through the review process and accepted, implement your marketing strategy
7. Watch the millions role in and retire.
😀

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