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A Fresh Perspective On AppleScript: An Interview with an AppleScript Newbie

Volume Number: 24 (2008)
Issue Number: 09
Column Tag: AppleScript

A Fresh Perspective On AppleScript: An Interview with an AppleScript Newbie

AppleScript insights and thoughts from a newcomer to the language

by Ryan Wilcox

Why This Article

AppleScript: the oft-maligned scripting language from Apple has been included on every Mac since System 7.1. AppleScript's key weapon might just be its English-like syntax, making AppleScripts very readable by just about anyone.

Sometimes talking to a newcomer to a technology or language reveals things we, in our familiarity, have forgotten. This article is meant to look at AppleScript, by interviewing a newcomer to the language.

About The Interviewee

Kevin Hartman majored in Studio Art with a Graphic Design concentration, where he used Macs heavily in his education. After college he got a job at a college in Rochester, NY, where he's been a Mac technology support specialist/system admin since 2007. Kevin is a switcher, having spent most of his time on Windows PCs. Along with AppleScript, Kevin dabbles in HTML/CSS, Flash/ActionScript, and a bit of Python.

The Interview

Tell us about your experiences writing your first script. How did you begin using AppleScript?

It was actually suggested by a coworker. He dabbled in it himself in the past, and when we needed a network drive [mounted automatically] he suggested we look into AppleScript to accomplish the task. So I started asking around and browsing forums and pulled together what I had found. Of course, it didn't work the first 20 times or so (maybe a little exaggeration), but I was able to tweak it and make it work for what we needed.

Tell me about that script

The script's purpose is to mount student's Active Directory home folders when they log into a lab computer. The script mounts the network volume using "whoami" to identify the specific user's folder. Worked great, except when the volume was already mounted, it couldn't get the folder to come up because the mount part would get an error "already mounted". So then I did some more browsing, figured out how to put in a conditional to detect if the volume was already mounted, then act accordingly.

We changed it slightly soon after. We thought, "what if the user closes out that folder? Then they would have to manually browse to it again." So, I wrote a second script, which I will refer to as the alias script. The alias script runs on login, again with a conditional, and creates an alias to the volume mount script on the desktop. That way, the user just double clicks the icon labeled "Open Your Network Drive" or something to that effect, and it mounts the volume and opens the folder... or just opens the folder if the volume is already mounted.

What do you think about AppleScript as a language?

Thus far, I think AS as a language/tool has been very useful and relatively easy to pick up. The English-style writing of the language makes it easily accessible for someone who, like me, has done little more than dabble in code in the past.

So how did you go about picking it up then? Do you have any resources for the total newbie?

The first script, the Active Directory home folder script, was done through forum searches and personal contacts to get it working. After that, I picked up a couple books. Beginning AppleScript by Kochan (from Wrox), and AppleScript The Definitive Guide by Neuburg (from O'Reilly). After that, I mostly used the Guide for reference, and used the dictionary viewer.

What I like about AppleScript is how easily approachable it is. For the most part, the phrasing for the code makes sense. As an example: tell application "Finder" to ... is like writing a sentence, and little or no strange characters and such... no $ # ! ; : to remember what each do.

You're right Đ some experts write AS with lots of symbols, for complex things, but for the most part it's straightforward English.

When I look at AS examples, it makes sense... when I look at other code examples it just looks like a printer error that threw up on my screen.

Have you ever run up against something weird or confusing in AppleScript?

Yes: sometimes in AS you start using shell commands, and that can get confusing. I'm not exactly sure how it works, but I noticed that folder path was completely different, and knowing which one to use in which case...

Mac HD:Users:... vs /Users/... ?

Yeah.

Usually the former goes with alias "" and the latter goes with POSIX file "".

Anyway, beyond its English-like syntax, is there anything else you really like about AppleScript?

I really like the fact that AppleScript is integrated into the OS, making it easy to manipulate other programs with it.

True: you can talk to the Finder, then go over there and talk to another program, then...

Exactly.

Where do you think AppleScript could improve?

I think one thing that would help a lot would be examples of code within the dictionary, rather than just telling you what it does.

Another thing that would help for us beginners is some kind of list of what AppleScript uses for object names such as: drawer; text field, window, and panel, and where each one is used.

In my opinion, it's all well and good to have each of those in a dictionary or whatever, but if you don't know what you are looking for to begin with... Basically, knowing a drawer is "drawer" or a Label is "text field"... or a Custom View (in interface builder) is "view" in AppleScript... maybe what I'm looking for is a list of each class, like window, drawer, text field, view, etc.

The verbs in the dictionary viewer are grouped with the nouns... maybe an easier way to see all the nouns, no matter what "suite" they are in?

Yes. For example, there was one feature that was pretty nice in ActionScript 2.0 that gave you "hints" and auto-completion options while typing the code. If I started typing "on" it would pop up a window beneath the cursor, without interrupting, with all commands that follow "on". So it would start listing "(release)" "(releaseOutside)" etc etc. and you could either just keep typing, use the mouse to select one, or if you just hit return, it would use the top option. The list would be refined as you typed. Then, once you start typing a command, such as "goto", it would pop up anything with "goto" in it... so would pick "gotoAndStop", THEN it popped up a little yellow "note" with context for the gotoAndStop like so "gotoAndStop (frame # or name)". This feature was rather handy for the beginner, 'cause the hints and contexts were given to you on the spot

XCode has Code Sense, which works for AppleScript too, but it's not that involved. Script Editor has a Script Assistant feature which is better, which might help if you're writing just scripts... Have you tried out any of the third party AppleScript tools, like Script Debugger or Smile or Facespan?

Not really. I was using Lingon at one point, but that was mostly just a tool to make a script run on login and work with Launchd.

What are your suggestions for new users?

I would say pick up some books, check your online resources and try to find someone you can chat with for those times you get stuck.

Acknowledgements and Resources

Well thank you for your time today, Kevin. For you and other people trying to learn AppleScript, let me suggest some resources to help you out with learning AppleScript.

First, MacTech's archives include almost 3 dozen articles from Benjamin Waldie, from http://automatedworkflows.com. His articles are outstanding, and run the gamut from beginner articles to scripting specific applications. MacTech's archives have other AppleScript articles too, ranging from recent to ancient history. All of these articles can be found on-line at http://www.mactech.com/articles

Secondly, and already mentioned in the interview, there are several really good AppleScript books out there: Beginning AppleScript by Kochan (from Wrox), and AppleScript The Definitive Guide by Neuburg (from O'Reilly) are the two we mentioned, but Apple Training Series: AppleScript 1-2-3, written by two essential members of the AppleScript community, is certainly one to watch out for (coming July 27, 2008). There are also two books at http://www.spiderworks.com: Danny Goodman's AppleScript Handbook OS X Edition; and AppleScripting the Finder (by Benjamin Waldie). Spiderworks also has several other books on AppleScript and Automator.

Ryan Wilcox is a long time language dabbler, including AppleScript, which he's been using since Mac OS 8. His company, Wilcox Development Solutions (http://www.wilcoxd.com) has long used AppleScript for workflow optimization. He can be reached at rwilcox@wilcoxd.com.

 
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