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Tools We Use: LaunchBar

Way back in the dawn of computing, there was a word processor called WordStar. Many people who used it heavily claimed that its keyboard controls had become embedded in their fingertips, but I never quite understood what they meant. Thanks to the Mac OS X utility LaunchBar, written by Norbert Heger of Objective Development, I now know what they were talking about.

LaunchBar is a launcher utility. Apple provides plenty of ways of launching applications in Mac OS X, such as double-clicking application or document icons in the Finder, clicking icons in the Dock, or choosing an item from the Recent Items menu. But all of these approaches – and most other launcher utilities – fall down in one way or another.

Double-clicking an application is easy and obvious, but it requires that you navigate to that application in the Finder, which in turn requires that you know where the application is located. Clicking icons in the Dock works fine for a small number of frequently used applications, but only for a small number, and you must set them up in advance. The Recent Items menu implements an undeniably good idea – speeding access to those items you happen to have used in the recent past – but as soon as you want to launch an application that’s not in the Recent Applications list, you’re back to hunting through the Finder. Worse, you never know if a seldom-used application will be in that list until you look.

LaunchBar solves all of these problems.

Type to Launch — Although there are multiple ways to activate LaunchBar, such as clicking its menu bar icon, Dock icon, or window, the way most people use it is by pressing a system-wide keyboard shortcut. You can pick from five pre-defined possibilities; I use Command-Space. Once you’ve activated LaunchBar, you type a few characters from the name of the application you want to launch, verify briefly in LaunchBar’s unobtrusive window that it has associated your typing with the correct application, and press Return. The entire process takes only a second, no matter what application you may be launching.

Let’s compare LaunchBar’s approach with the other methods of launching applications. Because LaunchBar automatically scans your hard disk for applications when it launches, it always knows exactly which ones you have installed, and it lets you launch any of them without the least bit of hunting through folders in the Finder. Since it scans automatically, you don’t have to set it up explicitly, as you do with the Dock and many other launcher utilities (although you can control where it looks when scanning for new items to make available for launching – more on that in a bit). And finally, it doesn’t care if you last launched an application yesterday or a year ago – the last access time has almost no meaning to LaunchBar.

LaunchBar also doesn’t stop at launching applications. It can open documents in their associated applications. It can open folders in the Finder, and you can even navigate through folders with the arrow keys right in LaunchBar. It can open specific preference panes in System Preferences, or specific tools in Karelia’s Watson. It can open bookmarks from any Web browser in your default Web browser or, in the latest version of LaunchBar, in a specific Web browser. It can even "launch" email addresses; that is, it can create a new email message to the selected address using your default email program.


You’re probably wondering how LaunchBar knows that if you type BB that you want it to launch BBEdit. The answer is simple – it’s magic. Okay, it just seems that way – it’s actually an intelligent adaptive algorithm, which means that LaunchBar makes an educated guess. It’s pretty good – if I type IPNM, it guesses correctly at IPNetMonitor X. The problem comes when the abbreviation you type can reasonably match multiple applications, documents, bookmarks, or email addresses, at which point you must scroll through the list of choices LaunchBar displays and pick the correct one. So, if I type RE and want Retrospect Express, I have to pick it manually once or twice so LaunchBar knows that I don’t want Retrospect, or Retrospect Client, or ResEdit, or one of the zillion Kagi Register applications from numerous shareware programs on my hard disk. And yes, there’s a way to specify mappings that LaunchBar could never guess, such as MAIL for Microsoft Entourage.

This adaptive algorithm is what sets LaunchBar apart. When it’s just starting fresh, it makes intelligent guesses, but when it guesses wrong, it learns from its mistakes and constantly adapts itself to the user’s idiosyncrasies. It’s also forgiving – I make typing errors in my abbreviations all the time, but as long as LaunchBar does the right thing, I’m happy. At worst, my mistake will force me to teach LaunchBar about a different abbreviation mapping later.

Using LaunchBar’s keyboard-based approach to launching files turns out to be incredibly quick, but even better, it turns out to be fairly universal. Like all Mac users, Tonya arranges her Mac the way she wants, which always befuddles me when I sit down at it. No longer do I have to ask where she’s stored something or use Find to locate it. Now I just hit Command-Space on her Mac, type an abbreviation, and let LaunchBar work its usual magic. So, LaunchBar actually helps provide a consistent interface for multiple Macs that may be set up in very different ways behind the scenes.

Configuration — Where does LaunchBar find the set of applications, documents, and folders to match to abbreviations you type? If you choose Open Configuration from LaunchBar’s Configuration menu, you see a somewhat complex window that shows just which folders LaunchBar scans. You can add folders or files by dragging them into the window, and you can turn the pre-defined folders on and off with the checkbox next to each one. For instance, since I have Apple’s Developer Tools installed, LaunchBar was set to let me open large numbers of developer documentation files; since I’m not interested in opening them quickly or having them compete for my abbreviations, I simply turned them off. (On the other side of the coin, Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg said that without LaunchBar’s special awareness of the Cocoa documentation files, it would be basically impossible for him to do any development work at all.) I did, however, add all my Eudora address book files in the Nicknames folder, since LaunchBar didn’t know about them by default.

Realistically, I suspect most users will never even delve into LaunchBar’s Configuration window, but if you find it constantly suggesting items you never want to see again, a trip into the Configuration window to disable or delete the folder that holds those files is worth the effort.

Further Refinements — Within this basic functionality, LaunchBar offers numerous tweaks that most users probably won’t use, but which can make a huge difference for those that can utilize them. If you press Option-Return after selecting an application, LaunchBar hides all other applications while launching. Press Command-Return, and LaunchBar shows the selected application in the Finder. LaunchBar supports drag & drop, so you can drag a file to LaunchBar’s window to open it with the selected application, and you can even start dragging, then type LaunchBar’s activation key and the necessary abbreviation, then drop the file on LaunchBar’s window. This could be handy for opening an HTML file with BBEdit, for instance, when double-clicking would normally open in Safari. Drag & drop can also be used with folders to move or copy files, make aliases and so on.

For those who dislike the Dock and keep it hidden, LaunchBar can show a list of running applications. Press LaunchBar’s keyboard shortcut twice; once the list is visible, you can arrow through it, click the mouse, or use a scroll wheel to select an application, after which releasing the Command key brings it to the front.

Extending the Metaphor — LaunchBar usually supports bookmarks and email addresses by looking into the bookmark or address book files for the various Web browsers and email programs. However, in situations where it can’t read the program’s special file format (as with Outlook Express, Entourage, and Mailsmith), you can work around the problem by exporting a text file and telling LaunchBar to scan that file for email addresses.

But this gets one to thinking. Wouldn’t it be nice to find a phone number or postal address for someone in your contact database by typing an abbreviation for their name? LaunchBar could display all contact information for that person, and it could perhaps send selected bits of that information to different applications. So, pressing E might create a new email address in your default email program, pressing P might dial the phone using your modem, and pressing A could put the postal address on the clipboard for pasting into other applications.

Those features would be welcome, but even cooler would be an XML-based abstraction layer that would let anyone teach LaunchBar how to understand new types of data and act on them, perhaps using AppleScript to send the information to the desired application.

Crossing the Bar — I’ll admit it. I’m utterly addicted, and like those WordStar fans of yesteryear, I find myself typing Command-Space on just about any Mac I’m using. And when it doesn’t work because LaunchBar isn’t installed, I feel like an addict denied his fix. I’m even unreasonably irritated when the Mac is running Mac OS 9 and couldn’t possibly be running LaunchBar. LaunchBar has worked its way into my neurons, and I’m all the more productive because of it. It’s absolutely worth a try, and that’s especially true if you use lots of applications, you’re primarily a keyboard user, or you’re coming to Mac OS X from the Unix command-line world.

LaunchBar 3.2.9 costs $20 for individuals, $40 for business users, and there’s a trial version available that gives you LaunchBar’s full feature set, but only works for seven activations per session. It’s a tiny 246K download.


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