More than ever, the Mac is Apple’s power tool. Today’s Macs running Apple silicon can use the full library of macOS apps and iOS apps through Catalyst or unmodified right from the App Store. And then there’s everything hiding under the hood, from application scripts to Unix 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 isn’t going to cease to be a power tool, the next few years will change its nature in fundamental ways.
Shortcuts replaces Automator
The news that Shortcuts is replacing Automator (and make no mistake, it will be) isn’t just important because macOS has a brilliant new tool for user automation. It’s also an important sign that Apple is paying attention. Over the past few years, it has been difficult for Mac app developers to feel that it is useful to add automation features to their apps. But now we have the answer: the shortcuts are there, and Apple will spend a few years in the transition to a new world.
Starting this fall, you’ll start to see Mac developers adding support for shortcuts. As on iOS, the applications will “give” actions in the Shortcuts application. The power of the apps you use builds up in shortcuts. In some cases, these actions will open the application and make it perform a task. In others, it might not even need to open the app in a visible way, but can apply some of its power to any problem that 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 scripts and shell support, with one big problem. Apple has made a commitment to no longer include common Unix scripting systems with macOS. In macOS Monterey, PHP is already gone, and Perl and Python are older versions that will be removed soon enough.
That’s okay on one level: you can always install the latest versions of PHP, Perl, and Python on macOS. (I use Homebrew to do this.) On the other hand, if you’re building an automation that relies on one of these scripting languages, you’ll need to install them on any Mac you want to automate.
What about other scripting languages?
This brings us to the bigger question: What happens to AppleScript and the Apple Events technology that has kept cross-app communication on the Mac for decades? iOS has no equivalent to Apple Events. Two-way URL forwarding has become the standard method of communication, believe it or not. But Apple recently modernized with features like Siri Intents.
Every application implementing its own scripting or macro language is not a way forward. This is where Apple needs to step in as the owner of the platform and create a common frame of reference for everyone, developers and users.
The future of scripting on macOS
What happens at the end of this multi-year transition? The simplest assumption is that AppleScript, which dates from the early 1990s, will finally be scrapped.
What will replace it is more of an open question. Shortcuts can’t be the end in themselves: it’s just not a tool designed for the precise remote control level 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 put together in a simplified interface. (Witness Jellycuts, which is a scripting language designed to create shortcuts!)
And maybe, just maybe, Apple will build this automation system once and deploy it not only on the Mac, but also on the iPhone and iPad.
It’s a hard thing. This is why Apple has been so clear in calling this transition several years. Shortcuts on the Mac are going to be a great first step, but there is still a lot of work to be done before the next generation of Mac user automation is ready to ease the burden of the previous one. It may take years, but the future is bright.