If you’re among the 1.2 million-plus people who have upgraded to Mac OS 8 and you’re anything like me, it’s taking time to take advantage of its new features. One such feature, contextual menus (CM), is easy to miss but worthwhile. Apple intended CM to decrease mouse travel and help users access commands directly given the current context of what they’re doing. Contextual menus pop out of icons, windows, and other items when you Control-click them, providing quick access to appropriate commands.
Mac OS 8’s built-in contextual menus work in the Finder and contain a few basic commands. For instance, you can trash, label, or make an alias of a file. Or, if you Control-click the Trash, a command appears for emptying it. You can add more capabilities to Mac OS 8’s built-in contextual menus by installing plug-ins into the Contextual Menu Items folder, located in the System Folder, and restarting your Mac. Unfortunately, at this time, these plug-ins only work with PowerPC-based Macs; if you have a 68040-based machine, the rest of this article will be more a tease than a help.
Some programs have had features similar to contextual menus for some time, but those efforts are independent from Mac OS 8’s contextual menus. Bare Bones Software’s BBEdit 4.5 was perhaps the first application to ship with support for Mac OS 8 contextual menus, and it comes with a smattering of built-in commands, plus it can use appropriate plug-ins installed the Contextual Menus Items folder.
Quick Compression — The first CM commands I added were from Chris DeSalvo’s $5 Compression Plug-In 1.0, a slim 13K download that makes it possible to stuff and unstuff files and folders from a contextual menu by way of Aladdin’s StuffIt Expander and DropStuff utilities. At first, the Compression Plug-in didn’t work; however, the new version 1.0.1 fixed my problem by looking for StuffIt Expander and DropStuff on volumes besides the startup disk.
Internet Address Detectors — The next additions to my Contextual Menus Items folder came free from Apple in the form of Apple’s Internet Address Detectors (IAD). IAD parses a Control-clicked text selection in almost any application and offers possible actions relating to URLs and email addresses in the selection, such as opening a URL or saving it as a bookmark. IAD works with Internet Config, Netscape Navigator, AOL, Internet Explorer, Anarchie, Fetch, Cyberdog, and more, and it comes with an Apple Data Detectors control panel where you can configure it to offer only commands that make sense for Internet software you use. (Note you can expand the control panel’s window to see more controls at once.) If IAD doesn’t find the correct version of an application, you may be able to fix the problem by rebuilding your desktop.
You also get a new extension, the Contextual Menu Enabler, which adds Mac OS 8 contextual menu capabilities to applications that don’t otherwise support them. As you might guess, there are problems with some applications that use the Control key for other purposes. Apple has released a bland tech note that mentions problems in FileMaker and Excel and points the finger squarely at these applications, saying "Apple advised developers not to use the Control key because it was reserved for future use." We users end up in the middle; with luck, either Apple will release a version that accepts custom keyboard shortcuts or software developers will update applications so they are CM savvy.
IAD downloads as a 2.2 MB DiskCopy image; you’ll need DiskCopy 6.x (available from the IAD download page) or Aladdin’s ShrinkWrap 3.0 to install the software.
Web Publishing Helpers — I’ve used Acme CMM Widgets for only a few days, but two of the items may end up in my stable of HTML tools. Written by Acme Technologies, this free package includes three tools in a 39K download: Copy Image Size, ColorFinder CMM, and Clipboard to Clipping. Copy Image Size works in the Finder on any GIF’s icon and puts into the clipboard an image tag with height and width attributes for the GIF (JPEG support is planned for a future version). You can then paste the tag into an HTML document. ColorFinder CMM offers an eye dropper tool; with the eye dropper, click any pixel on your screen and ColorFinder CMM puts the HTML or RGB notation for the pixel’s color into the clipboard. You can choose from several different tags and notation types. The Clipboard to Clipping tool seems less useful – it creates a text clipping file on the desktop of text in the clipboard.
If you’ve already downloaded CMM Widgets, Image Tags used to swap the height and width attribute values. The version posted on 17-Sep-97 corrects this problem.
Finder Manipulations — Trygve’s CMM Plug-ins 2.1 include a dozen plug-ins, all written by Trygve Isaacson and available as a $10 shareware package in a 248K download. The plug-ins that interest me the most include: Touch (sets a file or folder’s last modified date to now), Simple Strip HTML (removes all HTML tags from a selected HTML file), and Open With (opens selected files with a chosen application). Programmers who want to create their own CM plug-ins might also check out Trygve’s CMM Framework, which comes with samples and a template.
More Finder Manipulations — Finally, there’s Stephen Marshall’s $10 shareware MacOS8 CMM Expansion Pack 1.0. It downloads in an 84K package that contains two plug-ins: Finder Info and Set Custom Icon. I recommend that most people use Finder Info only with the help of a friend or reference that explains its capabilities; those who are more experienced may enjoy its ability to change Finder information such as invisible and Custom Icon bits. Set Custom Icon is a time saver to those who like to customize their computing experience by assigning custom icons to files and folders.
No Hands — Due to a piece of software that I’m beta testing, my nervous system expects that a prolonged click will open a CM, instead of a two-handed Control-click. Apparently, I’m not the only one desiring this feature; the folks at Tools & Toys last week released Look Mom, No Hands! a $9 shareware extension that lets you open Contextual Menus by just holding down the mouse button. It’s an 80K download, and consumes a mere 10K of RAM when installed. I installed this treasure earlier today, and I’m happily in puppy love. Look Mom, No Hands! only works with icons in the Finder.
Observations — Contextual menus are changing my computing habits, and I’m liking them more and more. Like a professional waiter, they stay out of the way when I don’t want them and pop up quickly when I do. Perhaps the hardest part of working with CM is setting it up – I’d encourage those who write CM plug-ins to give the plug-ins unique names that perhaps include a company name, or perhaps provide extra information in the Get Info window for the plug-in. I already have a few items installed that I can’t track back to the makers and that makes it tough to pay the shareware fee.
I’ve by no means covered all the great contextual menu software out there. Those who wish to explore further or stay up-to-date on new developments might check out CM Central, a site that acts as a download arena, pep rally, and news source for contextual menu tools.