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Sal Soghoian

Photo by Phuc Pham for Wired


Sal Soghoian’s Automation Legacy

Not many Apple employees openly rebuked Steve Jobs and had a job at the end of the day, and even fewer dared do that when Jobs was actively looking to cut projects, as was the case when he first returned to Apple. But that’s exactly what Sal Soghoian did when Jobs told a gathering of Apple employees that their products were no better than Microsoft’s. He told Jobs that no, he was wrong, Soghoian’s technology was better than anything Microsoft had.

For almost 20 years, Soghoian led automation at Apple, most notably by creating Automator, until his position was unceremoniously eliminated by Apple in late 2016 (see “Tell Us Your Mac Automation Stories,” 7 January 2017). Wired has now profiled Soghoian, sharing the above Jobs story, among others. The profile also discusses his legacy, including his indirect influence on developers Greg Pierce and Marco Arment. They created the x-callback-url standard that led to the Workflow app, which Apple purchased and has turned into iOS 12’s Siri Shortcuts feature (see“iOS 12 to Focus on Performance and Refinement,” 4 June 2018). Soghoian now develops automation technology for The Omni Group and organizes the CMD-D conference.

Despite the respect Jobs had for Soghoian, he regularly called him “Saul,” even when inviting him on stage at WWDC to introduce Automator. “He never quite got my name right,” Soghoian said.

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Comments About Sal Soghoian’s Automation Legacy

Notable Replies

  1. Regarding “Saul” vs. “Sal”: Jobs had idiosyncratic ways of pronouncing lots of things. His pronunciation of “Jaguar” and “automatic” come immediately to mind. :wink:

  2. “Ann was getting a little chummy. When people get too chummy with me, I like to call them by the wrong name to let them know I don’t really care.” - Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

  3. Wired’s article was a mess from title onwards: unfocused, uncritical, and confusing as hell. Makes it sound like Sal Soghoian invented Mac Automation (he didn’t; that was William Cook and Warren Harris), or single-handedly saved it following Jobs’ return (I’d love to hear what Cal Simone and the print industry thinks of that assessment!:joy:).

    And then it drifts onto the subject of iOS automation and the utter abomination that is x-callback-url (makes even SOAP look a good idea by comparison), no doubt in preparation for WWDC’s announcement of Siri Shortcuts (neé Workflow, reciprocating Automator), which I’m guessing will achieve about as much market penetration as its predecessors did: a niche of nerds and no further.

    As for Sal himself, a wonderful early evangelist for Mac Automation he may have been, but as its Product Manager for 20 years, his only legacy is finishing what idiot 90s Apple management started: running it into the ground. The man didn’t get sacked for no reason: he got sacked because repeatedly failed to deliver competent products that won new markets for his employer.

    Sal’s crowning failure was 2014’s JavaScript for Automation disaster. Apple handed Sal’s team an already massively popular language with MILLIONS of existing users to productize for them. JXA by rights should’ve been Apple’s killer response to Node.js: perfect timing AND two knockout USPs: ubiquitous desktop automation and complete Cocoa integration.

    Now Node.js is a phenomenal runaway success, with over 8 million users and 100% year-on-year growth.

    And Apple’s JavaScript for Automation? Sal sunk it without trace.

    Honestly, anyone who’d like to write a REAL article about Mac Automation (which it absolutely deserves), please start here:

    Dr Cook is an associate professor of Computer Science at University of Texas now, and I think Warren Harris works at Google. Talk to them if you can, about what motivated them to create it in the first place and lessons since learned.

    And then talk to the independent actors like me and Matt Neuburg, Cal (if you can find him), Mark Aldritt, and even Dave Winer (I know!), who’ve also worked this problem over the last three decades, to can fill in all the untold history that Sal never seems to mention.

    Even today, with Mac Automation all but dead at Apple and iOS Automation sadly failing to learn from lessons of the past, there is still incredible unrealized potential to empower end-users, hiding quietly beneath all that failure and dross. Perhaps if its tale were better told, it might just yet have its fighting chance to deliver on it all.

  4. Honestly, anyone who’d like to write a REAL article about Mac Automation (which it absolutely deserves), please start here:

    I’m glad the article included references to HyperCard; I miss it to this day. I’m probably one of the least technical people on this list, and even I could do some rather sophisticated scripting with it.


  5. I have been involved with print media longer than I care to admit I’m old, but I don’t recall hearing the names mentioned above before. My day jobs have been in strategy/ad sales/creative development, and I have always been dependent on production people. I did a quick search on Cal Simone, and IMHO, if he really is the person who managed to keep AppleScript alive for as it is claimed he did:

    “Way back when Steve Jobs returned to Apple and was axing technologies left and right, Cal Simone went to visit him and – to hear Cal tell the story – single handidly convinced Steve to retain AppleScript. I believe Cal’s pitch was mainly that the publishing industry was an established Mac customer enclave, large enough to matter, and that it was one industry that was utterly dependent on AppleScript.”

    Thought it is literally correct that Jobs was “axing technologies left and right” at the time, the big reasons were the whole Open Doc mess that was repeatedly delayed because it could never jell and nothing ever got out of development, alone with the clone disaster. It’s been proven that Jobs’ decision to kill everything related to Open Doc and clones was brilliant and correct, but I never heard anything about him wanting to kill AppleScript at this juncture.

    At this time, Adobe was not so secretly beginning to put the kabosh on everything Apple. They started releasing Windows versions of Photoshop about a year before Mac versions, and the cycles were spreading longer each year. Then they announced they would be releasing After Effects for Windows but never for Macs. Adobe said they would stop Mac development of Dreamweaver. Technically, at this time Apple still had a huge advantage in color, typography and vector image management, especially for print, and AppleScript was woven in to just about every print production workflow, so Adobe couldn’t ax everything Mac just yet. But the clock was running out, and killing AppleScript would have been another reason for Adobe to kill everything Mac, which I’m sure Jobs had this top of mind.

    Although I doubt Cal Simone was singlehandedly responsible for saving AppleScript from Jobspierre’s guillotine, his overall contribution to Mac OS is laudatory.


  6. Oh no, Siri shortcuts are going to be huge because the OS is going to be noticing what you do and offering up suggestions to automate it. The video on the developer site (and in the WWDC app) on Siri Shortcuts is pretty interesting (you can skip the code parts) and publicly available.

    Yeah, there’s going to be more automation actions in the first 3 months of iOS than in the previous 30 years of Macs.

  7. I agree 100%. Automation has been a HUGE competitive advantage for Alexa and Google Assistant, which have been wildly popular with consumer and business users. The ability to initiate actions without having to launch individual apps and for Siri to learn on its own, gives Apple a shot at a target they haven’t come near to hitting. And it’s also an incentive for developers to build more apps and people to download more of them.

    And don’t just think about Macs and iOS; I bet Shortcuts will help also sell HomePods and as yet to be born IOT devices, robo cars, etc.

  8. I agree iOS is the spot where most people will find it useful, but I for one find it indispensable on my Mac. My company, my teaching, my research all of my many roles and identities all are operated by a complex set of automation tools. To the point that my Mac is so deep in a combination of Automator workflows-Copied Applescripts-Hazel rules-Keyboard Maestro macros that it has become my chief fear if my Mac goes down.

    All my data is multiply backed up but beyond a clone restore how would I recreate all this.

    I agree Marilyn on Hypercard. For me in many ways the disappointment of the last few decades is the failure for authoring to progress, interactive multimedia abandoned to the web, scripting left to the geeks.

  9. Cal

    I realize that I’m way late to this conversation, but I wanted to set the record straight about the “AppleScript rescue” in 1997.

    First of all, the AppleScript rescue happened near the end of the Gil Amelio’s term, months before Steve returned. Early in 1997, Sal was already looking to let the lease on his apartment lapse, and was starting to make plans to return to Virginia, where he lived before he started at Apple; Chris Espinosa (head of AppleScript Engineering) had his resignation ready to tender. And I didn’t single-handedly rescue it, because one of the engineering managers inside Apple (whose name escapes me) contributed to the rescue, by moving AppleScript into the same development group as QuickTime, making it less vulnerable to (but not guaranteed safe from) the guillotine.

    There was a day coming that a few of us called “Black Tuesday.” Prior to this point, when Apple did cutbacks, they would thin the teams, asking managers of various teams to cut a percentage of their stay, say, 10%. But this time, the cutback plan was to cut entire technologies. OpenDoc, AppleScript, and 2 or 3 more were in danger. For each of the technologies in question, the three possible outcomes were: keep (which would continue updates and development), delect (cut it out entirely), or maintenance (keep it, but have no significant further improvements). A lot of folks close to AppleScript, were shivering, reasonably sure that AppleScript was going to get axed, since Apple had never put a lot marketing muscle in AppleScript’s direction (for reasons I can lay out in another post, if requested).

    Dob Crabb (R,I.P.), who had formed the Apple Customer Advisory Board (CAB), consisting of 8 members representing about 100,000 Mac seats, delivered a report first thing every Monday morning, to Gil, his CTO (Ellen) and the head marketing guy. Don, who was an AppleScript fan, asked if I’d like to include something in the report to be delivered the day before Black Tuesday. My angle was that the publishing industry, who bought many of the most high-ticket Macs, was heavily dependent on AppleScript, because a lot of production people (who would never code in a C-sytnax language) were able to automate their catalog publishing or some aspects of newspaper publishing, using AppleScript. Indeed, their use of, and dependence on, AppleScript was the only thing that allowed them to resist their IT departments’ edicts to go single-platform (Windows). I wrote this up, and included some scary figures (e.g, 64% of the high-end Macs were in publishing companies), in a 4-page report that Don attached to the Monday CAB report. And so we held our breath.

    On Black Tuesday, the announcements began to come in, this tech was being kept, another being cut, etc. But at the end of the week, no word about AppleScript’s fate. Late the following week, we finally learned that AppleScript has been put on “maintenance,” indeed a great sign of relief! The week after that, I was talking with Chris Gulker, wondering whether my report had some small part of play in this. Chris said, “Oh. Then you don’t know?? Going into that Tuesday, AppleScript was at the top of the list of things to be cut. Your report scared the **** out of those guys, and AppleScript was spared.” i was completely blown away.

    But that ended up being just the first part. “Maintenance” mode wasn’t enough for those high-powered publishing customers. They wanted a commitment from the executive team that (a ) AppleScript would be brought to OS X (not something that “maintenance” would have ensured), and (b ) Apple would keep the underlying AppleScript technology up to date as the OS evolved. So back in I went. I asked Sal to help arrange a meeting with the executive team, so that I could present the case for making (a ) and (b ) happen. I arranged for a few of those high-end customers (Dow Jones, L.A. Times, etc.) to be there; Sal brought one more customer in. The meeting was held in the board room in the towers at Mariani and Stevens Creek. (This was the scariest thing I’d ever done, to present to the execs.) After my presentation, the customers told the exec team where they stood, in some cases presenting examples of high-impact publishing automation. I had also invited Woz, who was an AppleScript fan, and whom I had become friends with a few months earlier; he didn’t even have to say anything, just sat there.

    It worked, and the commitment to take AppleScript to OS X was thus assured. There are those who would say that, if even a quarter of those publishing companies had left the Mac, Apple wouldn’t have survived. Who knows? I choose to think that Apple was able to hold on long enough for Steve to come back a few months later, and then Apple’s history again shifted in ways that none of us likely would have imagined.

  10. This is 100% true, and a great summary. Automation is, and always will be, critical to advertising, media and publishing workflows. But part of the equation is that Windows just couldn’t handle color or typography well or consistently. Though over decades it has somewhat improved, it’s still not somewhat enough. And Windows didn’t, and doesn’t, render as quickly as Macs.

    That and automation are why the battles continue and are likely to remain. It’s also why Apple developed the Mac Pro. IT departments in many companies across the globe are not going to be at all happy when entire creative, production and account management departments, including some of the most junior proofreaders who need to proof color, will be getting super expensive Mac Pros and georgeous screens while they will be stuck with cruddy old PCs and monitors.

  11. IT departments in many companies across the globe are not going to be at all happy when entire creative, production and account management departments, including some of the most junior proofreaders who need to proof color, will be getting super expensive Mac Pros and georgeous screens while they will be stuck with cruddy old PCs and monitors.

    I work in IT for a magazine and we are all Mac. No way are we going to buy a Mac Pro. Not for designers, not for editors, not for production staff, definitely not for editorial staff. Huge waste of money.

    Honestly, a 27" iMac is fine (not even a Pro). We run color proofing stations on older Mac minis. For those Macs what is key is the 3rd party monitor that works with Kodak InSite and an approved color calibration tool. The iMac screen is not approved by Kodak for this use. These monitors work with Windows computers, not that we have any, even in accounting.

    We don’t need any hyperboll.

  12. Cheers Cal consider it requested! It’s always good to hear the stories from the other side.

  13. Around the time of the “AppleScript Apocalypse” I had a couple late-night conversations with Cal who was working on a plug-in for Photoshop 5 to make it scriptable (I still have the software, Cal). I also connected with Doug Olson from Adobe’s White Bear Lake engineering division about the same subject. I invited him on site at my place of employment south of the Twin Cities Metro to explain what AppleScript meant to us and how we would use scriptability in Photoshop. This would have also been around the time Sal called for people to submit their use-cases of AppleScript to shore up his “case for AppleScript” with Apple management. My employer was also one of a “curious few” who utilized the never-officially-released Plug-in for Illustrator 8; “ScripZ” by Mark Alldritt, briefly mentioned in his blog post, to make it scriptable. We actually operated our solution based on that for over 5 years. There were some nuances with it (IIRC) that made it more favorable (for our use) than Illustrator 9.

  14. Cal

    Okay, another year-and-a-half goes by, and I’m getting around to replying to Tommy’s request for me to share the reasons why I think Apple never put a lot marketing muscle in AppleScript’s direction, so here goes:

    IMO, this was about two basic things, the marketing problem and the support problem:

    • The marketing problem. Everything that Apple has put a lot of marketing muscle behind was for The Rest of Us. While AppleScript was as close as you can get to being a programming/scripting language for The Rest of Us, for AppleScript, The Rest of Us would be a very small subset of Mac users. I doubt that Apple could sell Very Large Numbers of People on the idea of writing commands in a scripting language. (* see next post) So I think that was a problem that would always exist.

    • The support problem. And here’s where the real potential nightmare would be. Let’s say you’re a solutions provider who wrote a complex script for a client (or maybe for a bunch of clients). You package it up as a nice neat applet that can be put in the Dock. The client/s is/are happy with it. It works just great.
      And then, one day it doesn’t work. There’s an error, or it doesn’t produce the desired result. Whom do they call? The solutions provider? The maker of the application that the script is talking to when the process doesn’t work? Apple Support? I think that Apple wasn’t prepared to have people calling Apple Support (or the application vendors) to help them troubleshoot problems with scripts written by whomever. This seems terrifying to me. (Before AppleScript, when I first saw the concept of Open Doc, I wondered about something similar – these little pieces of software supposedly talking to each other through Apple Events, each made by a different vendor, and something doesn’t work – what does the user do? Seemed like the worst imaginable support nightmare.)

    So knowing those two things made the runup to Black Tuesday all the more scary for those of us who were in the AppleScript world.

  15. Cheers Cal, those both make complete sense of course.

    There’s always the tendency outside Apple to view it as a monolith who “of course” would have the capacity to do whatever. And in the end it comes down to small teams or individuals and things growing in complexity or implications and yes, a terrifying prospect I can see that alright.

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