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A Useful Mac Program

Occasionally I discover a new Mac program which is just so useful that I have to tell everyone about it. This time the program is something I have been using for a while now but I have just discovered new functionality which makes it even more useful than I previously thought. The program is TextExpander. If you use a Mac you should read this entry and consider using this program.

The basic function of TextExpander is to expand text (as you might have guessed). Its a background process which waits for you to type a shortcut and then inserts the expanded text into the current program you are using at the insertion cursor.

This means that you can type a short sequence of characters and have a much longer or more complex sequence substituted. For example, if I want my email address inserted I just type oj“ and TextExpander expands that to “ojb@mac.com”. That only saves a few characters but I can use a different short sequence to expand to my full 6 line postal address or even more – in fact pages of text if necessary.

I use a two character mnemonic followed by two backquotes because I never need to type two backquotes otherwise. That means TextExpander won’t expand stuff when I don’t want it to. The sequence can be anything though. If I was never going to just type oj by itself I could have that expand to my email address instead.

So that’s an example of a simple substitution but it goes beyond that. TextExpander can also substitute dynamic data like the date and time. For example, if I want Greenwich Mean Time inserted I just type gm“ and I get “Wed, 25 Mar 2009 15:32:29 GMT” substituted. I have similar shortcuts for the date and time in different formats and other data.

Another powerful feature is that the substitution doesn’t have to be text. If I wanted my signature inserted as a graphic for example I could just type ms“. Obviously the program I’m expanding into would need to support graphics for this to work. Text substitutions seem to work everywhere, even in the Finder where I can insert the date into a file name by typing dm“ (the dm here stands for day-month-year. I use ym“ to give a year-month-day date, such as 2009-03-25).

Recently I discovered a feature which I had never noticed before. TextExpander can run an Applescript and substitute the result instead of doing a simple text substitution. I use the TinyURL web site to create short URLs which can be used in Twitter and other places. To get a short URL I can copy (or cut) the long URL I want shortened then type tu“. The shortened URL is then substituted by TextExpander (which sends the long URL on the clipboard to the TinyURL web site, returns the shortened version and substitutes it into the current document).

I can see that using Applescript might allow me to generate all sorts of useful dynamic data. Applescript can call Shell scripts, can access databases, documents, and just about anything else, so there is no limit to what can be done. I will create a page on my web site with useful substitutions, scripts, and other tips soon.

You might think that remembering all of those shortcuts is hard but it isn’t really. Its just a matter of choosing sequences which make sense but don’t get triggered accidentally. After a while it becomes so natural that I type them on other peoples’ computers and wonder why nothing happens! As well as that, all the substitutions can be accessed from the TextExpander menu, but that partly reduces the speed of the whole system.

TextExpander is published by Smile on My Mac. Their web site is http://www.smileonmymac.com/TextExpander/ and the program is US$29.95 shareware.

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