This website covers knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

ActiveWords vs Quicksilver

I'm in the midst of shifting from Windows XP into the Mac operating system. We've had a MacBook for a couple years, but it's mostly been the domain of my wife. While I am fairly comfortable using it and have been learning the positive things of the Mac experience, there is one big element missing from my Windows-based toolbox: ActiveWords.

activewords_logo.jpgThe short description of ActiveWords is that it is a keyboard launcher that does just about anything: open files, launch programs, go to websites, insert text substitutions, and it has a scripting language that gives you combinations of any of these things. There are plugins for AW that extend its capabilities for use with your favorite applications or websites, and I had several installed in Windows. One of the better ones is the "Knowledge Access" item that tells AW to do a web search if it doesn't recognize the words you've typed. I find this to be a great shortcut for me to do any kind of fast search.

quicksilver shot.pngFor the Mac I have often heard of Quicksilver, which has a similar functionality (and a similarly rabid following) as a powerful keyboard launcher. So I added it to the machine in the hopes that it would cover the hole I have from losing ActiveWords. So far (after a short trial), I am not thrilled, but I find it close enough that I may keep it. I'm hoping this blog post will inspire some assistance - I've already discovered a number of things in writing up these comments.

In the most obvious of comparisons, AW and QS are the same: both take a keystroke to activate an input panel, and that keystroke is customizable: Ctrl-Space, Cmd-Space, Cmd-Cmd, F8, etc. I've kept it on Ctrl-Space in Quicksilver, which is where I had it in ActiveWords. But once you are there, the differences appear. ActiveWords takes whatever you type and accepts it as the "command," whereas Quicksilver attempts to match what you are typing to items that it knows about. You then either accept the first match or arrow down to the one you want (or keep typing to get more specific). This is reminiscent of the built-in Spotlight capability: type a partial file name or application name and it will come back with anything that matches. One nice thing is that even misspellings work in Quicksilver. That doesn't fly in ActiveWords, which requires that you define every keyword that you want. I could see the advantage of doing things the QS way, as you don't need to explicitly create words or shortcuts to the items you use frequently. On the other hand, ActiveWords gives quick feedback that it doesn't know what you are trying to do, whereas Quicksilver keeps providing suggestions even when it clearly cannot help you.

One thing I really miss is the ability to explicitly link a document / application / website to a specific keyword - something I've seen Quicksilver users explicitly dislike about ActiveWords. In ActiveWords, if I think I am going to visit my blog a lot, I create a keyword, "b", to take me there. I'm not sure how to get this to work at all in Quicksilver: I've installed the Firefox add-in that is supposed to monitor my history and bookmarks, but I haven't found any love from that yet (possibly due to the age of the plug-in and newer versions of Firefox). This is the worst for me, since I don't have any bookmarks from my Windows days - everything was in ActiveWords, and now I have to either type in the name of the website or search for it, which slows me down. Keyboard launchers at their best should help you quickly do what you want.

If you want to take a sequence actions or have a command that accepts arguments in ActiveWords, you need to create a script that either combines existing actions or builds up your own from scratch. There is a simple scripting language. Several of the AW add-ins have already done this for you. In Quicksilver there are up to two additional arguments associated with any given item. This is characterized as "subject" (the main item), predicate (the action), and detail. Typically, you want to Open the file or application or website, so that is the default action. If you want to do something else, such as Send or Search with the keyword, you need to TAB to the next area and type the action (s = search/send, o = open, etc). If there is an argument required (such as for search), the detail area opens and you can TAB into that for input. QS has an interesting "comma trick" that allows you to have multiple subjects on which to act, such as doing the same search in several places at once. Is this better or just different? With AW there is a specific word that triggers a very specific event, whereas with QS you start with the top-level item and then decide what you want to do next.

Text substitutions don't really seem possible with Quicksilver. Yes, you can follow the directions from Lifehacker to setup a trigger for repetitive text, but that means a different keystroke. I don't particularly want that: just let me type "sig," and hit enter to insert my signature text into the current text area. ActiveWords had this one better in that if you type the keyword in the text and then hit another magic key (F8 in my case), the text would get automatically substituted. There's even an option to always fire an action when you type the keyword. (Type "sig" and a space and ActiveWords replaces for you.)

I have a lot of open questions on how to use Quicksilver to its utmost, many of which will be answered through use. I wonder if there is a way to change the default action, such as always search when I pick Flickr? How do I find out what capabilities a given plug-in will add to Quicksilver? For example, Google Calendar or Google Mail plug-ins. I've turned these on, but they don't seem to do anything: if I type "gmail" into Quicksilver, it doesn't give me anything that matches my expectations (neither does "calendar" or "appointment"). I like the Web Search Module plug-in, as it creates the shortcuts to a ton of common places where I might search: Flickr, Amazon, All Music, IMDB, Google, etc. I wonder if there is a way to modify the Flickr search to have it modify the search (i.e. for Creative Commons only)?

Final question: given the age of Quicksilver, is there a more up-to-date keyboard launcher for Mac that will be closer to what I want?

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