More than ever, the Mac is Apple’s powerful tool. Today’s Macs running Apple Silicon can use the full library of macOS apps and iOS apps through Catalyst or unmodified directly from the App Store. And then there’s everything under the hood, from application scripting to Unix-based tools of all kinds.
But with Apple’s switch to silicon and Apple’s announcement in June that shortcuts are coming to the Mac as part of a multi-year automation transition, things are changing. While the Mac will continue to be a powerful tool, the next few years will change its nature in some fundamental ways.
Shortcuts replace Automator
The news that shortcuts will replace Automator (and make no mistake, that’s what will happen) isn’t just important because macOS has a shiny new tool for user automation. It’s also an important sign that Apple is paying attention. In recent years, it has been difficult for Mac application developers to feel that it makes sense to add automation features to their applications. But now we have the answer: the shortcuts are here, and Apple will spend a few years transitioning to a new world.
Starting this fall, you’ll start to see Mac developers add support for shortcuts. Similar to iOS, apps will “donate” shares to the Shortcuts app. The power of the applications you use is packed into the shortcuts. In some cases, those actions will open the application and cause it to perform a task. In others, you may not even need to open the app visibly, but you can apply some of your power to whatever problem needs to be solved.
Shortcuts get the power of Unix
Shortcuts on Mac also go beyond what’s available on iOS and iPadOS by being able to connect directly to Unix shell and scripting support, with a big catch. Apple has pledged not to include any more common Unix scripting systems with macOS. On macOS Monterey, PHP is gone, and Perl and Python are older versions that will be removed soon enough.
This isn’t a big deal on one level – you can still install the latest versions of PHP, Perl, and Python on macOS. (I use Homebrew to do it). On the other hand, if you are creating automation that is based on one of those scripting languages, you will need to install them on any Mac you want to automate.
What about the other scripting languages?
This brings us to the bigger question: What is it about AppleScript and the Apple Events technology that has kept inter-application communication alive on the Mac for decades? iOS does not have an equivalent to Apple Events. Passing URLs back and forth became the standard method of communication, believe it or not. But Apple has recently modernized with features like Siri Intents.
Every application that implements its own macro or scripting language is not a way to go. This is where Apple should step in as the owner of the platform and create a common frame of reference for everyone, developers and users alike.
The future of scripting on macOS
What happens at the end of this transition of years? The easiest guess is that AppleScript, which dates back to the early 1990s, will finally go to the pasture.
What will replace it is more of an open question. Shortcuts cannot be the end of everything, it is all by themselves: it is simply not a tool designed for the level of precise remote control of applications. Also, the more actions you put into a shortcut, the more complex it becomes, and beyond a certain point, it should probably be written as a script rather than assembled into a simplified interface. (Witness Jellycuts, which is a scripting language designed for creating shortcuts!)
And maybe, just maybe, Apple will build this automation system once and implement it not only on Mac, but also on iPhone and iPad.
This is somewhat difficult. That’s why Apple was so clear in calling this a multi-year transition. Shortcuts on Mac will be a great first step, but there’s a lot more work to do before the next generation of Mac user automation is ready to take the burden off the old one. It may take years, but the future is bright.