Waiting games: Automator

Posted on Jun 7, 2008 in Mac, Opinions

 Automator – which was introduced in 2005 as one of Tiger’s major new features – is a great concept, but unfortunately one that I think is let down by one minor flaw: speed (or more to the point: the lack of it).

For those of you who have never used it, the short explanation is that Automator is a tool to automate repetitive tasks. You don’t need any programming knowledge and instead create “Workflows” by visually arranging “actions” (e.g. you could create a workflow to convert, rename and upload a folder of photos).

Sounds like a brilliant idea, right? The basic premise actually works very well: Apple includes a lot of actions for common tasks and some 3rd party developers also include their own actions that allow you to integrate  their apps into your workflows

But there’s one caveat: On both of the Macbooks I regularly use, workflows can sometimes take as much as 10 – 15 seconds to launch.

Whilst that might not seem very long, when you’re basically just renaming files, 10 seconds is an eternity. It’s made worse by the fact that there’s absolutely no user feedback at all whilst you’re waiting for Automator to kick into gear. Only when you’ve waited those 10 seconds does the “Running” icon appear in the menu bar and you can see Automator begin to process your workflow.

Since workflows often use the “Selected Finder items” action, you also can’t click on any other Finder objects during that delay, otherwise the wrong file will be manipulated, effectively forcing you to wait and click nothing else until a workflow launches.

When you take a look behind the scenes using Activity Monitor, you can see that a process called “Automator Runner” is launched almost immediately. But I assume the lag is due to the runner telling the other applications involved (in most cases probably the Finder) what to do. 

I think in order for Automator to be truly useful, launching these types of actions needs to be “snappy”: Once clicked the workflow should launch no more than 2-3 seconds later, allowing the user to get on with something else. Any longer than that and users either assume it “hasn’t worked” or gives up in frustration. 

Please Apple, fix it  – for the little Robot’s sake.