TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Building An AppleScript-Based Automator Action

Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 8
Column Tag: Programming

AppleScript Essentials

Building An AppleScript-Based Automator Action

by Benjamin S. Waldie

There has been a lot of excitement in the developer community around the release of Mac OS X 10.4. Unique technologies like Automator, Dashboard, and Spotlight are providing new opportunities for Mac developers to build unique tools that appeal to users everywhere. This month, we are going to walk through the process of developing for one of these great new technologies, Automator.

Automator is Apple's new technology that is helping users everywhere to begin automating repetitive and time consuming tasks in their own unique workflows, allowing them to become more efficient. By placing actions, which are single automated tasks, together in a sequence, users are able to construct a fully automated workflow, without the need to write a single line of code. How does this help us, as developers, you may be asking? Well, someone needs to create the actions that give users this power.

Automator actions are built in Xcode, and are typically developed using either Objective-C, AppleScript, or a combination of these, and possibly other languages. Objective-C may be used to develop actions that interact with core components of the OS, or applications with a public API. AppleScript may be used to develop actions that interact with any scriptable application or process on the Mac.

In this article, we will walk through the process of creating a basic Automator action with AppleScript. This brief overview should provide you with a basic understanding of the primary steps involved in creating a simple AppleScript-based action. Once you understand the basic concepts of building an action, then you can take additional steps on your own to begin expanding your knowledge through additional resources. Before long, you will be creating complex actions that interact with a variety of scriptable applications or processes, and sharing those actions with users. Obviously, it should go without saying that you will need Mac OS X 10.4 and Xcode 2 or higher to create an Automator action.

Getting Started

There are a number of steps involved in the creation of an AppleScript-based Automator action, and we will move through the process fairly quickly.

The first step in creating an action is to determine what the action will do. I've done this part for you already. Our action will accept a list of values as input, and then display a choose from list dialog to the user, allowing the user to make a selection. The value specified by the user will then be passed as output on to the next action in an Automator workflow sequence. An action such as this might be used to give a user the opportunity to process only a specified set of data during execution of a workflow.

  • The choose from list command is found in the User Interaction suite in the Standard Additions scripting addition, included with Mac OS X.

Create an Action Project

Once you have determined what your action will do, the next step is to create a new Xcode project. To do this, launch Xcode and select New Project... from the File menu. You will then be prompted to select from a list of pre-existing project templates. Apple has included a handful of Automator action templates with Xcode to get you started. Select the AppleScript Automator Action template, and click the Next button to proceed. See figure 1.


Figure 1. Choosing an Automator Action Project Template

  • If you are feeling adventurous, or if you prefer developing in other languages, be sure to check out the Cocoa Automator Action and Shell Script Automator Action (Xcode 2.1 or higher) templates, also included with Xcode. Also, be sure to check out the example Automator action projects, complete with sample code, located in the Developer > Examples > Automator folder.

Next, specify a name for your Automator action, in this case, Choose List Items. Specify a directory for the project, and click the Finish button to create the action project. See figure 2.


Figure 2. Specifying a Project Name and Directory

You should now have an Automator action project opened in front of you in Xcode. See figure 3. If you are new to Xcode, then the project may look a little overwhelming to you at first glance. However, there are really only a handful of components with which we, as AppleScript developers, will need to interact. These components are:

main.applescript - This is your action's main AppleScript file. It will contain the AppleScript code that will trigger when the action is run in an Automator workflow.

main.nib - This is your action's interface, as it will be displayed when the action is placed into the workflow view in Automator's interface.

info.plist - This is essentially a configuration file. It will indicate how your action should be handled within Automator, and within a workflow sequence.

  • An English instance of an InfoPlist.strings file is also present, and may be used to specify English translations of properties contained within the info.plist file. Optionally, additional versions of this file may be added for additional translations. For this sample action, we will not use the InfoPlist.strings file.

We will discuss each of these components in greater detail as we build our action project.


Figure 3. A New AppleScript-Based Automator Action Project

Update the Action's Properties

Once we have created our action project, we need to make some adjustments to the info.plist file within the action project. As previously mentioned, the info.plist file is an XML file, which provides information about the action to the Automator application. There are a number of properties and values included in the info.plist file. For the purposes of the action we are building, we will discuss only a handful. At this time, take care not to make changes to any properties included in this file, which are not specified below.

There are a number of ways that you can edit an action's info.plist file. For this project, we will edit the file's XML code directly. Click on the info.plist file in your action's project to view the file's contents within your Xcode window. Skim the info.plist file, paying special attention to the properties listed below, and making any adjustments indicated.

AMAccepts

This property provides Automator with information about the input that an action will accept. This property contains an XML dictionary, which specifies whether the input for the action is optional, and which types of input are acceptable. If an action is configured to accept a certain type of input, then Automator will generate an error if an incompatible input type is passed to the action.

An action may be configured to accept multiple input types, if desired, and each input type must be specified as a universal type identifier (UTI). A list of valid UTI's is included with the Automator developer documentation. For our action, we will simply make use of the default UTI for this property, com.apple.applescript.object, which indicates a generic AppleScript object. Because this is configured by default, you should not need to modify any aspects of this property. The property should appear as follows within your info.plist file:

<key>AMAccepts</key>
<dict>
   <key>Container</key>
   <string>List</string>
   <key>Optional</key>
   <false/>
   <key>Types</key>
   <array>
      <string>com.apple.applescript.object</string>
   </array>
</dict>

AMApplication

This property specifies the category in which the action will appear in the Library list within Automator's interface. For our action, set this property to a value of Automator. This will cause the action to appear within the Automator category.

<key>AMApplication</key>
<string>Automator</string>

AMCanShowSelectedItemsWhenRun and AMCanShowWhenRun

These properties indicate whether the user should be allowed to configure the action's interface to be displayed when run within a workflow. For our action, set the values of both of these properties to false, as we do not want the user to have the ability to display the action's interface during processing.

<key>AMCanShowSelectedItemsWhenRun</key>
<false/>
<key>AMCanShowWhenRun</key>
<false/>

AMCategory

This property is used to help Automator group similar actions together, internally. Currently, the value of this property is utilized by Automator only when the user performs a search via the search field in Automator's toolbar. For our action, set this property's value to Dialog.

<key>AMCategory</key>
<string>Dialog</string>

AMDefaultParameters

This property is used to link attributes of our action's interface to the action's code. We will revisit this property shortly, once we have created our action's interface, and we will specify its value at that time.

AMDescription

This property contains an XML dictionary, which contains the information that Automator displays in the description area when the action is selected. This value may be used to specify a variety of different types of information. For our action, we will use only a few. Configure this property in your action's info.plist file to match the following:

<key>AMDescription</key>
<dict>
   <key>AMDInput</key>
   <string>A list of values, which may be coerced to text format</string>
   <key>AMDOptions</key>
   <string>Allow multiple selections; allow empty selections</string>
   <key>AMDResult</key>
   <string>Specified list items</string>
   <key>AMDSummary</key>
   <string>This action will prompt the user to select from a list of values.</string>
</dict>

AMIconName

This property is used to specify the name of a graphic file that will serve as the action's icon in Automator's Action list, as well as in the action's description, when the action is selected. You may specify the name of a graphic file within your project, within Automator's bundle, or within the "CoreTypes" bundle (found in System > Library > CoreServices). For our action, we will specify a graphic that is included within Automator's bundle, a standard AppleScript icon:

<key>AMIconName</key>
<string>AppleScriptLarge</string>

AMKeywords

This property is used to specify keywords for an action. These keywords will be accessed by Automator when a user performs a search via the search field in Automator's toolbar. For our action, we will specify select and display as keywords. Feel free to assign other keywords as well, if you would like.

<key>AMKeywords</key>
<array>
   <string>select</string>
   <string>display</string>
</array>

AMName

This property contains the name of your action, as it will appear in the Action list within Automator. This property should already be populated for you, but it still bears mentioning. It should appear as follows within your action's info.plist file.

<key>AMName</key>
<string>Choose List Items</string>

AMProvides

This property is similar to the AMAccepts property. It contains an XML dictionary, and indicates the type of output that the action will provide to the next action in a workflow sequence. Like the AMAccepts property, the output type must be a valid UTI. By default, this property should already be configured to output a generic AppleScript object, so you should not need to adjust it. This property should appear as follows within your action's info.plist file.

<key>AMProvides</key>
<dict>
   <key>Container</key>
   <string>List</string>
   <key>Types</key>
   <array>
      <string>com.apple.applescript.object</string>
   </array>
</dict>

Localized Strings

As previously mentioned, you may use an InfoPlist.strings file to specify localized versions of strings within your action's info.plist file. However, for the purposes of this example action, we will not perform this task. Therefore, click on the InfoPlist.strings file in your action project, displaying its contents in Xcode. Next, delete the existing text from this file, leaving the InfoPlist.strings file blank.

Build the Action's Interface

The next step in building our Automator action is to create our action's interface. First, double click on the main.nib file in your action project to open the action's nib within Interface Builder. Once opened, double click on the nib's view instance, if it is not already displayed for you.

Assuming that you already have a basic understanding of how to use Interface Builder, then you may begin adding interface elements to your action's view. For our action, add two checkboxes, set their size to small, and title them Allow Multiple Selections and Allow Empty Selections, as shown in figure 4. These checkboxes will be the settings within our action's interface, which the user will be able to configure from within Automator.


Figure 4. Editing an Action's Interface

  • For more complex actions, you may add additional interface elements. However, be sure to adhere to Apple's Aqua human interface design guidelines, taking into account the limited amount of space within Automator's interface.

Bind The Interface to the Action's Code

Once an action's interface has been designed, the interface elements must be linked to the action's code. This will allow the action to detect changes made to the action's settings by the user, and trigger the appropriate processing code.

There are multiple ways of linking interface elements to the code of an action. However, the most straightforward is to make use of Cocoa bindings. This is the method that we will use for our action. The following steps will walk you through the process of creating these bindings.

Create Parameter Keys

The first step in binding interface elements to action code is to assign parameters. These parameters will later be attached to attributes of the interface elements, and inserted into our action's code. By doing this, changes made to the specified interface element attributes will automatically synchronize to the code of our action. Begin by clicking the Parameters instance in the action's nib. See figure 5.


Figure 5. Selecting the Parameters Instance

Next, type command + 1. This will open the Inspector panel, if not already opened, and display the Attributes pane for the selected Parameters instance. Next, click the Add button in the Attributes pane of the Inspector panel, and add two keys. As the new keys are created, double click on each of them, and re-name them allowEmptySelection and allowMultipleSelections, as shown in figure 6.


Figure 6. Interface Parameter Keys

Bind Parameter Keys to Interface Elements

Once you have created parameter keys, select each of the checkboxes in the action's window view, and perform the following steps. Type command + 4 to display the Bindings pane in the Inspector panel for the current checkbox. Click on value in the Bindings panes of the Inspector panel, and select the parameter key that corresponds to the current checkbox in the Model Key Path field. See figure 7 for an example of a properly configured parameter binding for the Allow Multiple Selections checkbox.


Figure 7. Binding Parameter Keys to Interface Element Attributes

Once parameter keys have been bound to the values of both checkboxes, save the action's interface in Interface Builder, and return to Xcode.

Specify Parameters in the info.plist File

Now that we have configured the bindings within our action's interface, we need to link them to our code, so that they will synchronize automatically when modified by the user. Click on the info.plist file again to display the list of properties for the action. Now, we will revisit the AMDefaultParameters property, which we mentioned briefly.

The AMDefaultParameters property should contain an XML dictionary, containing key/value combinations for the various parameter keys specified within your action's interface. Values specified for these keys will serve as default values for any bound interface elements. For our action, set the AMDefaultParameters property to contain a key for each of the parameter keys that we specified, along with a value of false for each. The properly configured property should appear as follows within your action's info.plist file:

<key>AMDefaultParameters</key>
<dict>
	<key>allowMultipleSelections</key>
	<false/>
	<key>allowEmptySelection</key>
	<false/>
</dict>

Write the Action's Code

Next, we are finally ready to begin writing the processing code for our action. We will be doing this entirely with AppleScript. Click on the main.applescript file to display the action's AppleScript code within Xcode. Next, specify the following code for the action:

on run {input, parameters}
   if (class of input) is not equal to list then set input to {input}
   if input = {} then return input
	
   set inputStrings to {}
   repeat with a from 1 to length of input
      set end of inputStrings to item a of input as string
   end repeat
	
   set allowMultipleSelections to |allowMultipleSelections| of parameters
   set allowEmptySelection to |allowEmptySelection| of parameters
	
   set outputStrings to choose from list inputStrings multiple selections 
      allowed allowMultipleSelections empty selection allowed allowEmptySelection
   if outputStrings = false then error number -128
	
   set output to {}
   repeat with a from 1 to length of inputStrings
      if outputStrings contains (item a of inputStrings) then set end of output to item a of input
   end repeat
	
   return output
end run

As you write processing code for an action, take care to add protection for scenarios that might cause the action to generate an error during processing. For example, our action expects a list of values to be provided as input. Therefore, I have added code to ensure that the specified value is a list, coercing it to a list if necessary.

Test the Action

Once the action's processing code has been written, you are ready to begin testing your action. You may do so by selecting Build and Run from the Build menu within Xcode. Doing so will launch a temporary instance of the Automator application, and your action should be accessible for testing.

To test our specific action, construct a sample workflow. This workflow may consist of a Run AppleScript action, our Choose List Items action, and a View Results action. See figure 8.


Figure 8. An Example of a Test Workflow

If all goes well, your action should display a list of passed input values when run within a workflow, and output the user-specified values. Inevitably, you may make a mistake, which could prevent your action from appearing within Automator, or from running properly within a workflow sequence. It happens to the best of us. To help resolve any issues that may occur during development of this action, you may download and consult the source code for this example action from the following URL:

http://www. automatedworkflows.com/files/demos/MacTECH.08.05.Example.zip.

In Closing

This article should serve as an initial guide to get you started with building your own AppleScript-based Automator actions. However, it is not meant to serve as a definitive guide to Automator development by any stretch of the imagination. For detailed information about creating Automator actions in AppleScript, as well as Objective-C, please refer to the developer documentation included with Xcode, and also available online via the Apple Developer Connection.

If you prefer a book on Automator, then be sure to check out my comprehensive Mac OS X Technology Guide to Automator, available from SpiderWorks http://www.spiderworks.com in both print and eBook formats. The first section of the book covers using Automator, and the second section covers developing your own custom actions. If you think that you need a refresher on AppleScript itself, be sure to check out Danny Goodman's AppleScript Handbook while you're there as well. Sample chapters of both books are available for download.

Until next time, keep scripting!


Benjamin Waldie, author of the best selling eBooks "AppleScripting the Finder" and "Mac OS X Technology Guide to Automator", available exclusively from www.spiderworks.com, is president of Automated Workflows, LLC, a firm specializing in AppleScript and workflow automation consulting. For years, Benjamin has developed professional AppleScript-based solutions for businesses including Adobe Systems, Apple Computer, NASA, PC World, and TV Guide. In addition to his role as a consultant, Benjamin is an evangelist of AppleScript, and can frequently be seen presenting at Macintosh User Groups, Macworld, and other events. For additional information about Benjamin, please visit www.automatedworkflows.com, or email Benjamin at applescriptguru@mac.com.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

calibre 5.35.0 - Complete e-book library...
Calibre is a complete e-book library manager. Organize your collection, convert your books to multiple formats, and sync with all of your devices. Let Calibre be your multi-tasking digital librarian... Read more
Sound Studio 4.10.0 - Robust audio recor...
Sound Studio lets you easily record and professionally edit audio on your Mac. Easily rip vinyls and digitize cassette tapes, or record lectures and voice memos. Prepare for live shows with live... Read more
Sparkle Pro 4.0 - Visual website creator...
Sparkle Pro will change your mind if you thought building websites wasn't for you. Sparkle is the intuitive site builder that lets you create sites for your online portfolio, team or band pages, or... Read more
Dropbox 140.4.1951 - Cloud backup and sy...
Dropbox for Mac is a file hosting service that provides cloud storage, file synchronization, personal cloud, and client software. It is a modern workspace that allows you to get to all of your files... Read more
FotoMagico 6.0.5 - Powerful slideshow cr...
FotoMagico lets you create professional slideshows from your photos and music with just a few, simple mouse clicks. It sports a very clean and intuitive yet powerful user interface. High image... Read more
Remotix 6.4.2 - Access all your computer...
Remotix is a fast and powerful application to easily access multiple Macs (and PCs) from your own Mac. Features: Complete Apple Screen Sharing support - including Mac OS X login, clipboard... Read more
Microsoft Office 365, 2019 16.57 - Popul...
Microsoft Office 365. The essentials to get it all done. Unmistakably Office, designed for Mac Get started quickly with new, modern versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and OneNote-... Read more
War Thunder 2.13.0.66 - Multiplayer war...
In War Thunder, aircraft, attack helicopters, ground forces and naval ships collaborate in realistic competitive battles. You can choose from over 1,500 vehicles and an extensive variety of combat... Read more
RoboForm 9.2.8 - Password manager; syncs...
RoboForm is a password manager that offers one-click login, mobile syncing, easy form filling, and reliable security. Password Manager. RoboForm remembers your passwords so you don't have to! Just... Read more
Adobe Photoshop 23.1.1 - Professional im...
You can download Photoshop for Mac as a part of Creative Cloud for only $20.99/month (or $9.99/month if you have purchased an earlier software version). Adobe Photoshop is a recognized classic of... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

‘Ark Legends’ Gives Players a Chance to...
It’s Airpods and Amazon gift cards galore as Melting Games opens pre-registration for Ark Legends. The upcoming mobile RPG is giving away tons of in-game goodies such as gold, energy, iron core, hero summon chest and rare iron core to players who... | Read more »
‘Nickelodeon Extreme Tennis’ Out Now on...
Nickelodeon Extreme Tennis () from Old Skull Games and Nickelodeon is this week’s new Apple Arcade release. Nickelodeon Extreme Tennis features characters from old and new Nickelodeon shows including SpongeBob, TMNT, and many more. The tennis game... | Read more »
SwitchArcade Round-Up: ‘RPGolf Legends’,...
Hello gentle readers, and welcome to the SwitchArcade Round-Up for January 20th, 2022. In today’s article, we’ve got a massive amount of new releases to check out. We’ve got summaries of all of them, from heaven to hell. We also have the lists of... | Read more »
‘Zed Blade ACA NEOGEO’ Review – Well, It...
SNK’s NEOGEO platform played host to a great many classics, both famous and under-the-radar. The Metal Slug games. The King of Fighters series. Magician Lord. Shock Troopers. Sengoku 3. NEO Turf Masters. Fatal Fury. Samurai Shodown. Twinkle Star... | Read more »
‘Inua – A Story in Ice and Time’ is a Un...
One thing I know about ARTE from their output on mobile over the years is that they love collaborating with really interesting and unique studios to put out really interesting and unique gaming experiences. This is true yet again with the latest... | Read more »
Out Now: ‘Angry Birds Journey’, ‘RPG Dic...
Each and every day new mobile games are hitting the App Store, and so each week we put together a big old list of all the best new releases of the past seven days. Back in the day the App Store would showcase the same games for a week, and then... | Read more »
SwitchArcade Round-Up: ‘Banjo-Kazooie’ C...
Hello gentle readers, and welcome to the SwitchArcade Round-Up for January 19th, 2022. After a couple of big-pants articles in recent days, today is somewhat of a lighter one. We’ve got a little news to go over, a small handful of new releases to... | Read more »
‘Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel’ Is Out Now on PC...
Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel was confirmed for all consoles including Switch, PS5, and more in addition to PC and mobile platforms last year. Since then, Yu-Gi-Oh! | Read more »
SwitchArcade Round-Up: Reviews Featuring...
Hello gentle readers, and welcome to the SwitchArcade Round-Up for January 18th, 2022. We’ve got another batch of reviews today, with our pal Mikhail covering the lamentable Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy Definitive Edition. Has it been whipped into... | Read more »
‘Total War: Medieval II’ Coming to iOS a...
After a bit of teasing, Feral Interactive just announced that it is bringing Total War: Medieval II to iOS and Android. This will be the developer’s first release since the brilliant Alien Isolation. Check out my review of the iOS version here. | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

In stock and on sale! 16″ 10-Core M1 Pro MacB...
Amazon has new 16″ 10-Core/512GB M1 Pro MacBook Pros in stock today and on sale for $50 off MSRP including free shipping. Their prices are the lowest available for new M1 Pro 16″ MacBook Pro from any... Read more
Deal Alert!: 14″ M1 Pro with 10-Core CPU in s...
Amazon has the new 14″ M1 Pro MacBook Pro with a 10-Core CPU and 16-Core GPU in stock today and on sale for $2299.99 including free shipping. Their price is $200 off Apple’s standard MSRP, and it’s... Read more
Apple has 24-inch M1 iMacs (8-Core CPU/8-Core...
Apple has restocked a wide array of 24-inch M1 iMacs with 8-Core CPUs and 8-Core GPUs in their Certified Refurbished store. Models are available starting at only $1269 and range up to $260 off... Read more
Select 24″ M1 iMacs are on sale for $100 off...
Sales of Apple’s new 24″ M1 iMacs have been rare since its introduction, perhaps due to global supply issues. However, B&H is offering a $100 discount on select 24″ iMacs, and they’re in stock... Read more
M1 Mac minis are back in stock today at Apple...
Apple has M1-powered Mac minis available in their Certified Refurbished section starting at only $589 and up to $140 off MSRP. Each mini comes with Apple’s one-year warranty, and shipping is free: –... Read more
B&H has M1-powered Mac minis on sale for...
B&H Photo has Apple’s Mac minis with M1 Apple Silicon CPUs in stock today and on sale for $50-$100 off MSRP, starting at $649. Free 1-2 shipping is free to many US addresses. Their prices are... Read more
New Amazon sale: Apple’s 13″ M1 MacBook Airs...
Amazon has Apple 13″ M1 MacBook Airs on sale for $100 off MSRP, starting at only $899. Their prices are the lowest available for new MacBook Airs today. Stock may come and go, so check their site... Read more
Get an Apple Watch Series 7 for $50 off MSRP,...
Amazon has Apple Watch Series 7 models on sale for $50 off MSRP including free shipping. Their prices are the lowest available for Apple Watch Series 7 models today: – 41mm Apple Watch Series 7 GPS... Read more
Here are the details of Apple’s 2022 Educatio...
Need a new Apple Mac or iPad for school? Whether you’re a student, teacher, or staff member, you can use your .edu email address when ordering at Apple Education to take up to $400 off the price of a... Read more
Amazon is blowing out 2020 21″ iMacs for only...
Amazon has clearance 2020 21″ iMacs (2.3GHz Dual-Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD) on sale right now for $599.99 including free shipping. Original MSRP for this model was $1099. Amazon expects delivery in... Read more

Jobs Board

Registered Nurse (RN) Employee Health PSJH -...
…is calling for a Registered Nurse (RN) Employee Health PSJH to our location in Apple Valley, CA.** We are seeking a Registered Nurse (RN) Employee Health PSJH to be Read more
Systems Administrator - Pearson (United State...
…and troubleshoot Windows operating systems (workstation and server), laptop computers, Apple iPads, Chromebooks and printers** + **Administer and troubleshoot all Read more
IT Assistant Level 1- IT Desktop Support Anal...
…providing tier-1 or better IT help desk support in a large Windows and Apple environment * Experience using IT Service Desk Management Software * Knowledge of IT Read more
Human Resources Business Partner PSJH - Provi...
…**is calling a** **Human Resources Business Partner, PSJH** **to our location in Apple Valley, CA.** **Applicants that meet qualifications will receive a text with Read more
Manager Community Health Investment Programs...
…is calling a Manager Community Health Investment Programs PSJH to our location in Apple Valley, CA.** **Qualified candidates will be invited to do a self-paced video Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.