Back in 1988, when Microsoft Word couldn’t search and replace styles, a Classics student of mine named Adam Engst (what ever became of him?) put me wise to a solution involving macro automation, using CE Software’s QuicKeys. QuicKeys could simulate user actions, such as clicking a button or choosing a menu item; each such action is called a shortcut. And it could string shortcuts together into little programs called sequences. You could trigger a shortcut or a sequence by pressing a combination of keys or by choosing from a special QuicKeys menu. With QuicKeys, you could automate, or provide keystroke-based access to, all sorts of common or repetitive tasks.
QuicKeys immediately became indispensable on my computer, but shortly after reviewing version 3.5 in 1996, I stopped using it (see the "Mac Macros" series of articles beginning in TidBITS-347). The Finder, and other programs I commonly use, were becoming more scriptable through AppleScript or Frontier; QuicKeys was having trouble with newer systems; and OneClick provided more programmable access to a greater range of functionalities.
Now QuicKeys is back, with version 4. What’s new? Not much, really. CE Software added some new ways to create shortcuts: in the Finder, Control-click a file or folder, or drag it into a QuicKeys toolbar, to create a shortcut that opens it. Two types of shortcuts, when expressed as buttons on a QuicKeys toolbar, can now accept drag & drop of files and folders. There are some new shortcut abilities, such as locking a file, or changing Finder views. But what’s really important is that QuicKeys now works with recent versions of the Mac OS.
Macro My Mac — Installation is greatly simplified, without so many pieces spread out over so many folders, and with only one extension required (the QuicKeys control panel). However, if you’re upgrading, the time-consuming and confusing task of cleaning up from previous versions is left to you.
It’s a pleasure to have QuicKeys back on my machine, and to greet old shortcuts as old friends. I’d forgotten how accustomed I was to typing a certain command to hide the current application, or to bring the Finder to the front. I restored custom keyboard shortcuts for menu items that lack them, or whose real shortcuts I dislike. On my PowerBook, which lacks an extended keyboard, I immediately restored ways of typing Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, and so forth.
While testing, I removed OneClick; and this reminded me that QuicKeys’s abilities, though splendid, are fairly narrow. I have OneClick buttons that cascade my window positions, or present a list of windows so I can bring one to the front, or remember recently used applications and let me launch one from a list. QuicKeys’s inability to do those things made me feel initially hamstrung.
Still, QuicKeys quite adequately handles most of my habitual needs. It can cycle through windows in an application. It can collapse or expand the frontmost window. It lets me maintain a palette of commonly needed folders; using the palette, I can open a folder, or copy a file into it. And some of what QuicKeys can’t do can be accomplished by other utilities: it can’t keep a list of recent applications, but Apple Menu Options can; it can’t present a pop-up hierarchy of my hard disks, but The Tilery can; it can’t present a list of open windows, but TitlePop can.
On the other hand, QuicKeys is not a full-fledged scripting language (with variables and arithmetic and strings and the like), and generally can’t perform actions that require one. For example, I commonly ask OneClick to collapse all but the frontmost window of the current application; QuicKeys is incapable of that, because it can’t count the windows or cycle through them. QuicKeys can rename files according to certain preset templates, such as appending a serial number, but not in accordance with criteria that you create. QuicKeys can switch your TCP/IP configuration to one you’ve specified beforehand, but it can’t present a list of your configurations and let you switch to one – even though it can do just that with your running applications. In short, QuicKeys’s abilities are all highly specific and compartmentalized; it has no mechanism for generalizing them.
From another point of view, though, this limitation is an asset. QuicKeys isn’t a scripting language because it doesn’t want to be one. Many people are frightened by scripting languages: they can’t program, or they think they can’t, or they can’t be bothered to learn. So QuicKeys lets you create shortcuts and sequences through familiar interface features such as lists and menus and dialog boxes that present simple sets of predetermined options. It may not permit customization to the degree that a scripting language does, but there’s comfort in its confinement and clarity.
Ossify My Interface — One of the big troubles is that QuicKeys’s interface is far from clear. Its dialog boxes are rigid in infuriating, unnecessary ways. For example, you can’t give certain shortcuts a descriptive title; a shortcut that chooses a menu item automatically has a title which is the same as the text of the menu item. And for certain shortcuts where you can assign a title, the title is limited to 15 characters. The result is that, viewing your list of shortcuts by their tiny or predetermined titles, you don’t know what they do.
The native capabilities of certain shortcuts are so limited as to render them almost unusable. For example, ScrapEase lets you maintain multiple clipboards: you trigger a ScrapEase shortcut to copy selected text, which you then name in a dialog; then later you can trigger another ScrapEase shortcut to let you paste whatever scrap you choose from a list. But you can’t easily delete a scrap: you must open the QuicKeys editor, find any ScrapEase shortcut, open it for editing in a dialog, press a button to bring up another dialog listing your scraps, select one and press Delete, confirm the deletion in yet another dialog, and then dismiss the whole nest of dialogs one by one. The result is a reluctance to use this feature, because management is so inconvenient.
Creating a shortcut requires navigating a mysterious nest of hierarchical menu items. Consider the following actions: collapse a window; switch to the rear window; switch to the next application. Who would ever have guessed that these are accessed, respectively, through System Tools -> Mousies, System Tools -> Specials, and System Tools -> MacOS [sic] Specials? And each of these choices just brings up a dialog; you must still find the desired function in yet another menu. So even if you know that a certain shortcut type exists, you don’t know where to find it; either you spend all your time guessing, trying different menus and dialogs, or you look in the manual.
CE has done nothing to resolve the problems engendered by dependencies of one shortcut on another. Such dependencies can make understanding your shortcuts difficult, and editing them hazardous. For example, in a sequence you can include a Decision shortcut, which is the QuicKeys version of an "if" statement: if a certain situation is the case, QuicKeys triggers a certain other shortcut. But this other shortcut must exist separately. So when you examine your Decision shortcut, in a modal dialog, you don’t know what it does, because it calls another shortcut, which you can’t examine because you’re in a modal dialog. Conversely, when you look at the list of your shortcuts, you see that other shortcut, with no understanding of why it exists: there’s no indication that it is called by a separate Decision shortcut. So you might easily delete it, thereby rendering your Decision shortcut powerless; or, more likely, you’re afraid to delete anything, because you have no way of knowing what dependencies you might destroy. In effect, as soon as you have shortcuts or sequences of even the slightest complexity, they become unmanageable.
The same is true of toolbars. To include a shortcut on a toolbar, the shortcut must exist separately. But when you’re looking at the list of your shortcuts, nothing tells you that a shortcut is associated with a toolbar, so you can easily delete it, thereby accidentally removing its button from the toolbar. Conversely, when you’re editing a toolbar, you’re shown a list of your toolbars and a list of your shortcuts, but you’re not shown any association between the two. And if you’re editing a toolbar, what’s one of the main things you’d probably like to do? Edit one of its shortcuts, of course. But you can’t; shortcut editing and toolbar editing happen on two different tab panels.
It appalls me that CE has given no attention to these and similar problems. Far from taking the opportunity of this revision to address such long-standing issues, they’ve maintained an arcane and archaic interface that dates back twelve years, merely dressing it up with some colors and Appearance Manager-compliant buttons.
Shoot Myself in the Foot — None of the above means that I don’t like QuicKeys 4. I love it! It’s stable, it’s fast, it’s reliable, it doesn’t seem to slow or interfere with my Mac’s operation. And it has always had these interface problems, so I’m used to them. But I’m disappointed with CE Software for not fixing them, especially since I’ve been writing about them in TidBITS for years. Of course, this is the company that acquired WebArranger, one of the coolest programs in history, then failed to understand it, failed to support it, and eventually discontinued it. CE Software has no record of following my advice. But if this is the best that CE can offer its customers who have waited patiently for three years, it’s a bad sign. And why would such a clumsy interface attract new users?
The QuicKeys manual is poor. Too much of it is devoted to self-promotion; phrases like "time-saving" and "work more efficiently" appear frequently, as if the reader needed constant reminding why the program was purchased in the first place. Far too little of it is devoted to teaching and explaining. There are many errors. It’s also badly laid out, with fonts that don’t harmonize, and a short, wide two-column format that makes the PDF version illegible on most any monitor.
In one respect, though, CE improved the manual. QuicKeys Script, CE’s OSA-compliant scripting language for driving QuicKeys from other programs, is no longer hidden away from view; it is described in the manual, and in place of syntax specifications using arcane mathematics-like symbols, there are now easy-to-read tables.
I’ve explained, in an earlier essay, why you need a macro program. And once upon a time, QuicKeys was the only game in town; so you needed QuicKeys. But no longer. There’s OneClick. There’s KeyQuencer. There’s PreFab Player. Plus, the Mac OS itself is more scriptable than it used to be, through AppleScript or Frontier. With QuicKeys 4, CE Software has failed to acknowledge this competition; so far from taking renewed responsibility for the care and feeding of this fine, classic program, they’ve left it with a poor interface, a muddy manual, and limited capabilities. The result is that users have few reasons to choose QuicKeys over the younger and hungrier competition. That’s sad.
QuicKeys retails for $100; competitive upgrades are $50. A 2.3 MB 30-day demo version is available for download.