An Application Elegy: Automator

by Tom Bridge

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When Merlin Mann talks, folks listen. And last week when he talked about status pages, I listened. I too, love the concept behind a basic status page, and I've finally gotten off my ass taken care of creating one. But, Merlin's right, it would be great if it was an automated thing.

I was thinking in the shower this morning, what a perfect task for automator. You can trigger it from an event in iCal (just a basic script containing: open /Users/tombridge/Desktop/Status) and make Automator do all the hard stuff. Setting up the basics was easy, you can make Automator "Ask for Text" and give yourself a little prompt question. Being a bit of a card player, the first question I ask myself tends to be, what hand are you holding? The way this looks in Automator is thus:

Automator Question

When you append text to a file, it opens a fresh TextEdit document and surely enough appends the text. Sadly, though, as part of the execution of the script, Automator completely ignores my "Default Responses" for the content of the previous answer field, and I can't get it to actually save the contents of the text file, even though I swear I used the "New Text File" object correctly. I've tried it at the top of the document and again at the bottom, but with no joy.

Of course, it's pretty damned difficult to convince Automator that I'm done with the text file and to open a URL of my choosing so I can handle the copy/paste interaction into the WordPress template I set up.

What's really frustrating here is that Automator could seriously rock. There's so much potential here, it's just that we're not seeing a ton of it in practice. I'm also very frustrated by how laggy and slow the application's interface is, despite a decently powerful (1.5Ghz G4) powerbook and a good chunk of RAM (1GB), I am frequently stuck waiting for the workflow pane to scroll and that's just really lame.

There has to be a good non-AppleScript solution here, I'm just not seeing it. Can you point out my mistake?

[Update]: I'd like to thank Steve Weintraub from Automator World for firing back an email with the proper fix for my questions issue. If you set the text arrow at the top of each set to disregard the result of previous action, your correct default text will appear. However, I'm still stuck with the problem of saving this entry text, which seems to fail no matter what I try.

Can you solve this? Tell me how I screwed up.


2005-10-24 10:23:24
Big Ole WTF?
There's a few things to note here:

First is: it's a little hard to debug this without a little more info. Maybe if you posted a link to the complete Automator Workflow? You're right in noting that Automator twinks out on what should be obvious connections, resulting in, shall we say, non-obvious behavior. But there's almost always a workaround, even if situation dependent.

Second: you might want to take a look at the excellent ecto ( It includes a set of automator actions that might obviate the need for a lot of Automator backflips to achieve what you're trying.

Last: (Shameless plug alert) If nothing else head on over to AutomatorWorld ( and check for tips/help/suggestions there. We're a pretty active community dealing with Automator's potential and rough edges.

2005-10-24 10:35:40
Big Ole WTF?
I've added the workflows for download here: StatusFlow ( .