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The Case for Shortcuts on the Mac

Jason Snell writing on Six Colors:

The more I use Shortcuts, the more I realize that in many ways, user automation on iOS has outpaced automation on the Mac. Let me give you an example: On iOS I built a shortcut to grab the contents of selected text in Safari and open the results in a text editor—converted to Markdown, with the title of the page set as the title and its URL set as a link. It’s not remotely the most complicated shortcut I’ve built, but it’s great—and has saved me a lot of time while improving the quality of my link posts…

I love it so much, I decided to build the same automation on the Mac. The results were ugly. My Keyboard Maestro macro forces Safari to copy the selected text to the clipboard, moves to BBEdit, opens a new window, pastes in the HTML, runs an HTML to Markdown Service on the selection, then runs an AppleScript script that cleans up the results. It’s ridiculous.

This is a fantastic example of something that I’ve experienced over and over to the point where I hesitate before trying to automate anything on the Mac. As Jason points out, Shortcuts isn’t exactly easy, but I find that I usually spend the most time figuring out the best approach to a problem rather than how to implement it in Shortcuts, which is automation at its best. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle that encourages me to experiment more with Shortcuts and use Mac automation less.

The situation has also led me to take a Shortcuts-first approach to automation wherever possible. I run Shortcuts on an iPad alongside my Mac most days, relying on technologies and apps like the Universal Clipboard (when it works), AirDrop, Paste, and Drafts to create shortcuts like the Markdown-formatted link post shortcut that Jason describes. It’s not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m fortunate to work primarily in text, which is relatively easy to move from device-to-device. For many other kinds of automation, there’s no way to integrate Shortcuts.

Fortunately, there are many powerful third-party automation options on the Mac like Keyboard Maestro, which Jason mentions in his story. I use it along with apps like Hazel for folder action automation and BetterTouchTool for gesture-based automation. However, as good as apps like these are, it’s just another form of the fracturing of automation on the Mac. There should always be a place for third-party automation solutions on the Mac, but they shouldn’t be the only option for users.

Last month, Federico and I discussed our wishes for Shortcuts on AppStories. It’s a long list, but one wish that’s high on my list is Shortcuts on the Mac. Big Sur made clear that Apple is rethinking the Mac and iPad, bringing the two closer together as part of a continuum of devices that offer a consistent, familiar experience no matter which you’re using. Big Sur went a long way towards that goal, but it didn’t address automation. To truly build a continuum of devices, the automation barrier has to come down, too, so users can create automations that run everywhere.

Jason also mentions Taio, and what a shame it is that the developer has had to reinvent an automation system inside the text editor. I agree. Developers have come up with some excellent in-app automation systems, but it’s a lot to ask users to learn a new approach for each third-party app they use. As Federico and I discussed last month on AppStories and previously, it’s time for Apple to embed Shortcuts more deeply into the OS in a way that allows developers to adopt Shortcuts actions as building blocks that are available inside their apps.

Integrating Shortcuts across all of Apple’s platforms is a tall order, but it’s also aligned with the company’s goals for the Mac and iPad, so I remain optimistic. I don’t expect we’ll see everything addressed at once, but as Jason’s story makes clear, there are plenty of places for Apple to get started.