[caption id=”” align=”alignnone” width=”500.0”] Photo by April Killingsworth via Flicker[/caption]
I don't remember ever seeing my high school typewriting class teacher smile. She seemed more like an animate autochrome of an early twentieth century secretary than a real person living in 1994. She was a stoic, yet feminine, drill-sergeant-of-a-woman whose life, while tangent to mine, had only one purpose, and that was to teach my classmates and me how to type just as fast and accurately as we could without looking at the keys of our typewriters.
It's unlikely that the school district of my rural, Deep South hometown had any intention of preparing us for an adult life dominated by computer use. It's far more likely that our fingers were being groomed, like decades of digits before them, to speak fluent QWERTY in case we went on to land post-Industrial Age white collar jobs that weren't white enough to have someone else do the typing for us.
Though it was an artifact left over from the mid-twentieth century, that typewriting class and the tortuously menial exercises I endured in it, were arguably the most practical academic experiences I had in high school. I learned how to type in that hell. Really goddamned fast.
Then it was 1997
I never touched a typewriter again after high school. By the time I graduated, typing was something that I did exclusively on a PC. It was never a question of Mac versus PC but more a question of WordPerfect versus Word and Quattro Pro versus Excel.
As far as I knew, Windows was as much a natural part of the human experience as death and taxes. The Mac—virtually unknown to me at the time—was facing the former, and Windows was certainly the only way I knew how to do the latter.
Then it was 2008
Much like the religion you're born into, you don't really question the computing platform that greets you first. It's really not until the operating system—and the software on top of it—start failing you on a spiritual level that you become less able to swallow "that's just how things are."
That's where I found myself in the spring of 2008—sort of questioning, if not outright losing, my religion. I was sick of Windows, and I needed a new faith.
I had also been eyeing this guy named Merlin Mann who was doing things that seemed to me, at the time, so indulgent that they bordered on productivity perversion—at least in the context of the pale blue, point-and-click world I'd always known. Merlin was exalting a way of life that would surely draw stares anywhere outside of San Francisco, I thought. Hell, I was staring. I couldn't stop.
Merlin was talking to his computer, through his keyboard, but not at a command line. He was getting to files really quickly, and doing things with those files by typing verbs. He was puppeteering his computer in ways I'd never even pondered—but in ways that made "computing" seem so much more organic than anything I'd ever imagined.
Quicksilver, as much as Mac hardware and OS X, made the Mac irresistible to me.
Though application launchers—a label that's as accurate as "phone" for iPhone—are not a part of OS X, they feel connected to me in time and virtual space because they both arrived in my life at the same cosmic moment.
The inherent speed and stability of OS X over Windows—and Quicksilver, the way it flattened my digital world—changed the way I worked with computers on a very fundamental basis. On a more meta level, I'd found a community that I could identify with. The passion of the people using these tools made everything feel more like an experience rather than a means to an end.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that everything I've done in work and pastime since 2008 was affected by those events.
Then it was 2009
My time with Quicksilver would be short-lived. By the time I found Quicksilver, it had already been put out to open source pasture by its then-mysterious maker, Alc0r (who we now know was Nicholas Jitkoff).
LaunchBar was making a comeback, and though its feature set wasn't as expansive as Quicksilver's, LaunchBar seemed faster and more responsive in Snow Leopard.
I switched to LaunchBar in September 2009 and happily used it for over three years.
Then it was 2013
When I upgraded from Lion to Mountain Lion in the summer of 2012, LaunchBar didn't feel the same. It was noticeably slower. I had to restart it often to restore the snappiness I'd always enjoyed prior to Mountain Lion. A later LaunchBar update resolved some of my issues, but it was never quite the same.
After ignoring Alfred for most of its life, I decided to give him a try. I figured anyone with enough confidence to wear a purple ribboned bowler hat might know a secret or two about life that I didn't.
I was right. With Alfred, I fell in love all over again with the speed of a really snappy application launcher. There are many things I like about Alfred:
The intangibles – speed, fluidity, and a well-designed interface with large, easy-to-read fonts
Search scope control – By default, Alfred only triggers apps, workflows, and other built-in actions. To search for files and folders, you can either type
space. I love this "front-end fork" in the path I can travel to those two broad classes of objects.
Workflows – Alfred workflows can only be explained by example and trying them yourself. Just a few that I use all the time:
- Common web service searches for Google, YouTube, Flickr, Amazon and many more.
- Evernote – Please just install this one if you use Alfred and Evernote. I especially love using
entto search by filename.
- Paste as text – a simple workflow that does what it says in any application
- Custom search filters – For example, if I type
sp, I'm doing a keyword search only over my Sublime Text 2 projects
- 1Password integration – go straight to login sites from Alfred
- System commands – eject volumes, restart, and more
- Basic calculations – Alfred is my primary calculator because it's always just a Cmd-Space away
- Command history – Simply arrow up to view previous things you've entered in Alfred. It's great for returning to previous file searches and calculation history.
And now it's 2014
I can't say for sure that I'll always use Alfred, but I can say that given how I was nurtured and natured with a keyboard, I will always prefer a "production" computing platform that has app-launcher-like abilities.
Even though each year brings new interfaces—from touch screens to speech-based UIs to things you wear on your face—interacting with a computer with keystrokes remains the fastest and most natural way of talking to a computer I've found.