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QuicKeys X: The Return of the Ghost

With the advent of Mac OS X 10.1, I'm using Mac OS X nearly all the time, but many of my long-standing work habits have become useless. That's because those habits rely on third-party utilities that haven't made the transition - and, one fears, may never do so. In Mac OS X, after all, the system works in a whole new way, and developers must learn entirely different methods to hack into it and modify its functionality. Still, it's far from clear what the limits ultimately will be, and we should never underestimate the ingenuity of Macintosh developers.

Even as Mac OS X first shipped, I was wondering what in particular would become of macro utilities, those "ghosts in the machine" that perform preset actions by fooling your computer into thinking that an actual user is typing keys and wielding the mouse. So it's with some joy and relief that I find that CE Software's QuicKeys has followed me down the rabbit-hole and into the garden of Wonderland - but alas, only, like Alice, by drinking from the bottle that makes you smaller.


In Mac OS X, QuicKeys X is an ordinary application that must be running for you to trigger any shortcuts, so you'll probably make it a startup item by way of the Login preferences panel. Being an ordinary application, QuicKeys X now has ordinary windows and menus, which means that its interface is much improved. Gone are the impenetrable layers of modal dialogs. Indeed, CE has made QuicKeys's windows wonderfully Mac OS X-like, with splendid use of drawers, customizable toolbars, and drag & drop. It's so easy and intuitive that you probably won't even have to read the manual. However, there's still no straightforward list of all your triggers, and there's no way to learn what sequences or floating palettes an action is used in; these are problems I've pointed out for years, and it would have been nice to see CE take this opportunity to tackle them.


A QuicKeys action can have various triggers, and these can be universal or confined to a particular application being frontmost. The possible triggers for an action are: a keyboard combination or sequence of keyboard combinations; an absolute time, a time interval after startup, or a repeated time interval; clicking in a QuicKeys floating palette; or choosing from the QuicKeys menu (at the right end of the menu bar or in the Dock).

The narrow range of available actions suggests the limitations imposed upon QuicKeys by Mac OS X. QuicKeys X can type; it can move and click the mouse; it can sleep and shut down the computer; it can send a command to the Unix shell. These are invaluable. The remaining things that QuicKeys can do are achievable in other ways, and are notably less interesting, though welcome for enhancing sequences of actions. QuicKeys can open a file or folder, run an AppleScript script, switch among applications, open a URL, change the Finder's view of a folder, and switch between folders in an Open or Save dialog.

But QuicKeys can no longer click buttons or choose menu items by name, switch or scroll windows, access the clipboard, or send a raw Apple event. Also, QuicKeys X is now unable to "see" the screen, so it can't make decisions based on a certain window being frontmost or a certain menu item being enabled. QuicKeys's scriptability is also greatly curtailed; basically, it can run an action that you've previously created and named, and that's all.

QuicKeys X is a welcome and pleasant release, and I'm already putting it to good use. I've stocked it with some boilerplate phrases to be typed into any application, and I've made certain menu items accessible through keyboard shortcuts (though these are slow and unreliable, because instead of choosing the menu item directly, QuicKeys must move the cursor to the item's location). But QuicKeys is only a part of my bag of tricks.

I don't wish to sound overly negative about QuicKeys X - it may not yet measure up to the full capabilities it provided under Mac OS 9, but it is essentially a 1.0 release because everything it knew how to do in the past has changed with Mac OS X. Just as it's taking us all some time to learn new ways of interacting with Mac OS X as users, so too it's taking time for Apple to expose the innards of Mac OS X to the depth necessary for CE's engineers to write a tool as downright magical as a macro utility. CE has said they will be extending QuicKeys X's capabilities in the future; we wish them luck in ferreting out the secrets to automating Mac OS X's internal workings.

CE will have to move quickly, since a number of small utilities are coming out for Mac OS X that replicate some of QuicKeys's features. Typing text into applications can be handled by Selznick Scientific Software's Typist or Michael Kamprath's Keyboard Maestro; programs like DragThing, LaunchBar and Sig Software's Drop Drawers offer ways of opening and switching between applications, and launching AppleScript scripts; and I'm sure utilities I haven't yet run across are nibbling at other QuicKeys features.


QuicKeys X costs $60, and a 30-day demo version is available for download.


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