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Form, Function, and QuicKeys 3.5, Part 1

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master – that’s all."

    – Lewis Carroll

Perfecting the relationship between form and function is no easy thing for a software developer. To be sure, no amount of graphical bells and whistles can compensate for flawed functionality. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that interface makes a difference – a huge difference. No matter how valuable a particular feature, if triggering its performance involves steps too numerous, obscure, counter-intuitive, repetitive, annoying, or daunting (for reasons rooted in the peculiarities of the human psyche), people won’t use it, or (if they must) they’ll dislike it.

CE Software’s QuicKeys (QK) first appeared in 1987; TidBITS has been mentioning it since version 2.0 came out in mid-1990 (issue #16!). [In part, this is because QuicKeys played an invaluable role in the weekly distribution of TidBITS for our first five years. -Adam] Its function is to help you get round the formal shortcomings of other programs. It’s splendid that CE has recently promulgated QK 3.5, even though 3.5 is primarily an "interfacelift." The current version, 3.0, has been in place since mid-1993. In this first part of a two-part article, we’ll provide a general description of QK 3.5; next week, we’ll put this upgrade under the microscope.

Baby, You Can Drive My Computer — QK’s function centers on an extension which can perform certain fundamental Macintosh actions – hit a key, choose a menu item, click or drag the mouse, open a file – as if there were an invisible user at the controls. Its form comes from the various ways you can access, or trigger, that functionality, such as by pressing a certain keystroke, and from the dialogs that let you configure QK by associating a particular trigger with a particular action.

Why is this useful? Four main reasons come to mind. But, before I describe them, I should explain that a QK action is either "universal" to the computer as a whole or specific to a particular application. An application-specific action and its keystroke are available only when that particular application is frontmost. This means the same key combination can be used to trigger different QK effects in different applications, or a keystroke can invoke a universal action regardless of the application. You can have application-specific keystrokes override or nullify universal ones: thus, a universal keystroke could be made to apply to all but one particular application.

  • The first use of QK would be to customize an application so that it behaves more like other applications, reducing the number of different keyboard shortcuts I must memorize. For instance, I sometimes use an application which does not use Command-W as the keyboard shortcut for closing the frontmost window; instead, it uses it to mean Save. But I have a habit of using Command-W to mean Close, and Command-S to mean Save. So, I set up QK so that, in this application, when I hit Command-W, QK closes the window (by clicking its close box), and when I hit Command-S, it saves the document (by choosing the Save menu item).

  • Secondly, sometimes QK can perform a basic function that an application cannot. For instance, some applications have no menu command to move the frontmost window to the back, bringing the next window to the front. QK can perform this action in any application, so I can use the same keystroke to perform it universally.

  • Third, substituting a keystroke action for a mouse action saves me both time and muscle strain. Many applications lack a command to scroll the window up or down, or jump to the start or end of the document; one must click in the scrollbar. With QK, I press a key, and QK does the clicking.

  • Fourth, QK can string actions together. Such a string is called a "sequence." Where you find yourself performing the same set of actions repetitively, QK may be able to perform them for you. Are there certain phrases which, for one reason or another, you often use in your email? A single action from you, and QK can type any of them. Do you sometimes need to silence your computer quickly? You hit one keystroke, and QK opens the Sound control panel, chooses Volumes from the pop-up menu, clicks the Mute button, and closes the control panel. Are there certain combinations of font and size that you frequently use? No need to select twice from the menubar each time you change; you perform one action, QK does the rest.

Sequences can help you circumvent an application’s irritating interface, too. When I used CE’s QuickMail 3.5, the steps required to address a new message to go out over the Internet were numerous and tedious; as I recall, you had to ask to address the email, click the "special" button, type something in the "first name" box, replace the contents of the "server" box with "Internet", type the address in the "address" box, click OK, and click OK again. With QK, a single keystroke triggered a sequence that created and addressed a new Internet email from the contents of the clipboard.

Hiyo, Trigger — Sooner or later you will run out of easily remembered keystrokes to serve as triggers; and over the years QK has evolved various additional types of triggering event.

One of these is Time: the action is performed in response to the arrival of a certain moment. Time, for QK, can be reckoned absolutely or in seconds from the startup of a particular application (or the Mac as a whole). Using absolute reckoning, you might have your Mac perform unattended routine actions, such as running a disk optimization or a backup once a week late at night. Using application-relative reckoning, you might automate responses to an application starting up, like clicking away a splash screen or dialog.

You can also trigger actions by choosing from a special QuicKeys menu. This menu can appear hierarchically in your Apple menu, in the menubar, and/or as a pop-up menu. You decide which QK actions should appear in the menu, and at any moment the menu limits itself to universal actions plus those specific to the frontmost application.

There is also the reference card, a QK action which, when triggered, displays a modal dialog containing all currently available QK actions; clicking one triggers it. The reference card is also good for reminding you of specific keystrokes for actions (the QK menu listing doesn’t).

You can also create a tiny double-clickable application to trigger a QK action; such an application is like an alias, and can be located and started up in the same convenient ways.

In mid-1992, QK 2.1.2 introduced a new type of trigger, SoftKeys. This was itself a QK action which, when triggered, displayed a previously configured modal dialog consisting of ten buttons, numbered 1 through 0 as on the top row of your keyboard, plus the name of a QK action written next to each. Clicking a button or typing the corresponding number-key dismissed the dialog and triggered that QK action. Since the QK action triggered through a SoftKeys dialog might be to put up a different SoftKeys dialog, you could have a series of such dialogs referencing one another until you reached the action you actually wanted to perform. SoftKeys was supposed to bring your various QK actions under a convenient category-based control, but in reality it was horribly reminiscent of those DOS-based successions of modal "menus" that many of us switched to the Mac to escape from in the first place.

In 3.5, QK has wisely abandoned SoftKeys, and sensibly implemented toolbars take its place. Toolbars can be universal or application-specific; an application can have multiple toolbars. You can customize the icons, and there is "hot help," with the name of the QK action appearing when the mouse is over its icon. Toolbars come in three types. The first two are "floating" (windoid) and "embedded" (movable but docked to the edge of the screen); their visibility can be toggled by a keystroke or in the QK menu (the floating type can also be clicked away), and is contextual in that a visible application-specific toolbar vanishes when you leave that application and reappears when you re-enter that application. The third toolbar type is "click-and-go," which behaves more like SoftKeys did: you must invoke it to make it visible, and it vanishes when you click an icon.

Some Mac users have strong negative feelings about toolbars in general, but no one is compelled to use this feature; others will surely welcome the capacity to add powerful customized toolbars to any application. I hope users will be able to navigate the toolbar editing interface, though; it’s confusing and clumsy. For instance, you can’t create or edit an action while you’re working on a toolbar; and you’re able to install in a toolbar destined for one application an icon for an action belonging to another application (clicking it does nothing).

Cliffhanger — So much for what QK 3.5 does. But what about what you must do to configure it? How well does QK fit in with other ways of driving your Mac, such as AppleScript? And how good is 3.5 as an upgrade? Find out when this article continues next week!

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