Butler

Butler Icon

Automate tasks with Butler
by M. Chris Stevens


Separating the wheat from the chaff

I love shareware. I look at a lot of different shareware apps in my spare time. On any given day, I'll check out three or four apps that have grabbed my attention. Most of them are just new versions of things I've seen before, and I play with them for a little bit before tossing them into the Trash and go back to my "old standards". Others are just "toys" that are mildly entertaining until their novelty wears off and they, too get relegated to the virtual circular file. Every once in a while, though,I come across an app that makes me go "Whoa!" and evolves the way I look at my system. Peter Maurer's Butler has been the latest app to totally change how I work.

What is Butler?

Butler is a difficult app to describe. The best definition I can give it is a "Swiss Army Knife" program: a program that has many useful functions, all in one convenient little package.

When you first run Butler, the default settings give you a couple menus and a search box in the menu bar. While specialized menus in the menu bar is really not a new concept, the usefulness of a lot of these tools is pretty nice.

The System Menu
Access all the info you need (and even some stuff you didn't) from just one menu...

The first menu item of the default set is very nice if you have a 10.3 machine with multiple user accounts, but also have either a small monitor or a severe need to save some menu bar space, the Switch Users item is quite useful - especially if you have a long name.

Below that are a number of menu items that may or may not be useful to you, depending on your particular setup. On my home machine, I have other applications that fill in these roles, but on my work machine, I don't have these apps. Butler fills in the missing holes nicely, so that no application I use is ever more than a click or two away.

The Music menu will display information and control the music being played in iTunes. Many of these controls I have seen in other applications, but they blend nicely in with the rest of the Butler utilities.

The next couple of items are also things I've seen before, but not in quite the way that they're implemented in Butler. The pasteboard function is nice for having all the text clippings that you use frequently. At work I use it for answers to frequently asked questions and for signatures. At home, I have different HTML templates I always have ready should I need them. What's nice is that these pasteboards - and just about every other menu item in Butler, for that matter - can have a keystroke attached to it. If I want to add my standard information to the bottom of a page I'm designing, rather than copy/paste from another file, I just give a quick "control-option-z" and my footer is at the bottom of the page.

Even more useful, in my opinion, is the Keystrokes function. Basicly, it mimics keystrokes on your keyboard. I find this invaluable at work, where I'm often copying and pasting information from one set of fields and pasting it into another set of fields. Combine this with Butler's ability to run sequences of events, and this becomes a powerful automation utility. I'll touch on that in just a moment.

The Internet menu
Nothing new here, folks. Just your everyday average bookmarks bar.

The next menu is an Internet menu. The Bookmarks part of it is nothing very notable, though it is nice to be able to assign a keystroke to a frequently-accessed site, so if you hit control-M, you can go right to Macsales.com, if you so choose.

The Addresses function is kind of nifty. It looks at all the contacts you have in your address book, and displays their info in separate submenus for each contact. If you select their email address, it opens the default mail program, and if you select their Web site, it'll go there. One of the niftier features for those of us who don't have Bluetooth-enabled phones is when you select the phone number, and it pops the number up on the screen in large type, so you can punch it into your phone easily. It also does the same with street addresses, though that's probably less useful unless you're hand-writing an envelope.

The Search Menu
Butler's Web search options have many more options than Safari's...

The last menu is the Search menu. This is one of those features that's a lot more useful if you have a constant Internet connection, but its still nicer than the built-in search bar in Safari in that it has plug-ins for a number of different sites and subcategories.

Customization

While each of these features is really nothing new, Butler's main advantage is its flexibility. Don't like the extra menus in your menu bar? How about a floating palette instead? Would you like the User Switching menu as its own menu bar item? Just drag it to its own menu item. Want to keep the Web search, but don't want it cluttering up the menu bar or pallete? Drag the search to the "invisible Items" folder and assign it a nice hot key (default is control-option-G). Now, you have a nice pop-up search when you need it.

Preferences
This is where the fun begins...

But the customization goes even further than that. You can create sub-groups of pretty much any Butler items, and set them to run in sequence. This, is probably one of Butler's most useful functions. At work, I use it to gather information from a number of different programs, and put all that info into a single document. A coworker of mine uses it to gather information from one form and paste it into another form. At home, I use it to access my web mail account (automated, but that makes it very insecure) and to open groups of programs at a time. True, this could be done with an AppleScript, but I like the option of being able to do this with a simple keystroke.

Creating these short macros is simply a matter of creating a container for them all, then dragging or creating the items into that container in the order you want them to execute.

For example, say you want to create a form letter sent to a person's email from a list.You'd want to:

  1. Copy the address information
  2. Create a new email
  3. Paste in the email address
  4. Send the message.

In Butler, it'd look something like this:

formscript Options
These are the steps required to set up a form letter... ...and these are just some of the options available for this setup.

Then, you would select the container, and set it so that it "May be launched as a group from the menu". You may also want to hide the contents so that it always runs that group, instead of running individual steps. If you really want to get fancy, you can even add a "hot Key" for this script, and it'll run the connection instead of having to do each step manually.

The Bottom Line

Butler is one of those programs that manages to become so integrated into your workflow that you notice it when its not there. If you need a utility to help manage your bookmarks, organize your system, or automate repetitive tasks, you may want to give Butler a try.

You may wonder how you ever got along without it!

Butler Icon Butler

Download at: http://www.petermaurer.de/butler/