Command Space: A Review of LaunchBar and a History of Application Launchers

For the persnickety power-user, there is but one way to navigate around a computer: with the keyboard.

Let’s talk about application launchers

Want to launch an app on your Mac? There is, ahem, an app for that.

Whenever I do a clean install of my Mac (which is less often these days), the first application I download is LaunchBar.

Because to me, my application launcher is how I get around my computer. Without LaunchBar installed it’s like I’m at a friend’s house, trying to navigate to the kitchen in the middle of the night and I can’t find the light switches and I keep stubbing my toes on the furniture.

On average, I bring up LaunchBar about 40 times per day when I’m working at my computer. I spend about 6 of my working hours at my Mac, which equates to using LaunchBar about once every 10 minutes.

I’ve been using a Mac for 10 years. My first application launcher was Quicksilver, but when it farted out on Snow Leopard in 2009 I switched to LaunchBar. In 2011 I spent several months using Alfred, and I’ve switched over to it on occasion since then as well to stay abreast of its development.

There are plenty of other apps I spend more time in, but none I use more frequently than my application launcher.

If ever there was an app that needed to be as frictionless as possible, it would be the application launcher. It should come up instantly when prompted, it should respond instantly, and I should never feel lost or confused when using it. The whole point is fast launching and fast actions.

Some use cases for an application launcher include launching apps, launching bookmarks, launching AppleScripts, performing custom searches on various sites, doing quick mathematical calculations, opening files, getting at the recently-opened files within a certain app, accessing the clipboard history, performing actions on files (like grabbing a document and attaching it to an email, or resizing an image), and more.

Bottom line, what makes an application launcher such a critical tool is that it’s the fastest way launch and act on common apps, documents, bookmarks, and more.

But it doesn’t end there. LaunchBar and Alfred actually become more personalized as you use them. They literally learn your behavior by weighting certain search results and findings based on your usage over time, and they can be customized to only index the things you’re interested in accessing so that they act as fast as possible.

With Yosemite, Apple has promoted Spotlight to a more front-and-center position, and they are giving it a bit more “power”. So where did this idea of an application launcher come from? I’m glad you asked…

Other application launchers

Though LaunchBar is the original (not including the NeXTSTEP Dock), it’s not the only application launcher available on the Mac today.

For the sake of this article, an application launcher will be defined as any tool on your computer which provides a shortcut to finding and activating files and programs.

The Dock, for example, is the premier application launcher and it ships with OS X. Spotlight is also an application launcher. And there is Launchpad, but does anybody use it?

There are two functions that I consider to be the most important with an application launcher: (a) quickly finding and launching applications, files, and more; and (b) instantly activating an application or script with the use of a pre-defined global hotkey.

Alas, LaunchBar, which is this author’s application launcher of choice, does not have global keyboard shortcuts built in. Alfred and Quicksilver do. And so, in order to instantly activate an application I use a second application, Keyboard Maestro. For example: Mail is Shift+Command+M; Tweetbot is Alt+Command+T; nvALT is Alt+Command+N.

Though the Dock is convenient and ever-present, there are some shortcomings that a dedicated application launcher such as LaunchBar solves. And, in fact, it was this type of shortcoming that actually lead to the development of LaunchBar — the original 3rd-party application launcher.

An aside about Alfred

I think it’s fair to say that the king of the Application Launcher Market is Alfred. I conducted a detailed survey back in 2011 and another more casual one a few months ago, and the majority response to those surveys was that people use Alfred as their application launcher of choice.

Moreover, Alfred is what I recommend over at The Sweet Setup as one of the applications all moderately computer savvy folks should use on their Mac.

Alfred is, without question, a fantastic app. It is actively maintained, well designed, easy to use, and extremely powerful. The reason I pick it for people new to application launchers is that it’s easy to ease in to (when you type into the field, you can take as long as you like), it’s free for the basic feature set, and then you can grow into it if you want to buy the power pack.

But I personally prefer LaunchBar for a few reasons…

LaunchBar

My reasons for using LaunchBar are two fold. For one, I like the way LaunchBar handles Instant Send, browsing recent documents in apps, and its clipboard manager. Secondly, I like that LaunchBar is the original application launcher. It has a long and rich history of development on the Mac that spans literally 20 years. And I’m the sort of fellow who appreciates things like that.

So, all this to say, my review of and praise for LaunchBar is not a simultaneous knock against Alfred. I hope that, regardless of your Application Launcher of Choice, you can enjoy this article for what it is: a story about one of the finest and oldest Mac applications still in active development.

The “Command+Space” Origin Story

The original application launcher was, in fact, LaunchBar. It started back in 1995 and ran on NeXTSTEP.

About 11 years ago, Norbert Heger, the original developer of LaunchBar, shared about the history of this fine app in an interview with Derrick Story.

In the interview, Norbert shares about how when your files are organized with hierarchical structure it is more difficult to get to them quickly. And the sort of person who cares about organized hierarchal structure with their files, folders, is likely to be the sort of person who also cares about being able to get to all of those files and folders and applications quickly because they spend a lot of time making the most out of their computer.

And so, in 1995, LaunchBar began. At first it was a collection of shell scripts and a Terminal window. But as the internal team over at Objective Development used it more and more, they realized that it was a tool the general public would probably benefit from. So in 1996 they released a public beta.

Norbert Heger:

The very first “prototype” was not even an application. It all began with dozens of little shell scripts and a tiny Terminal window. Each of the scripts had a very short one- or two-letter name and just opened one specific application or document. The Terminal window was placed in one of the screen corners, allowing us to bring it to the front quickly using the mouse. When we wanted to launch Interface Builder, for instance, we just had to click that screen corner, enter “IB” (the name of the script we’ve prepared to launch Interface Builder) and hit Return.

From there they developed a rating algorithm and automatic indexing so that you wouldn’t have to write new shell scripts for every app, file, or folder you wanted to launch.

They also came up with the keyboard shortcut that we still use today:

Johannes Tiefenbrunner “invented” the Command-Space hotkey back in 1995. In NEXTSTEP it was nearly impossible to implement a system wide hotkey, but Johannes found a way to patch the Display Postscript Server (also responsible for dispatching keyboard and mouse events), allowing us to activate LaunchBar with a single keystroke. Fortunately, these things became much easier to accomplish in Mac OS X.

LaunchBar 1, running on NeXTSTEP — Circa 1995

LaunchBar version 1

LaunchBar 2, running on Rhapsody

LaunchBar version 2

In 2001, Objective Development ported LaunchBar to OS X. They gave it a mostly “default looking” design, which stayed pretty consisted for the next 12 years.

LaunchBar versions 3 – 5 all looked just about like this:

LaunchBar 4

But today, the design is changing.

LaunchBar 6:

LaunchBar version 6

What’s New in LaunchBar 6?

Quite a bit, in fact. In short, LaunchBar looks better, has access to more items on your Mac (like iCloud tabs!), and you can now write and install custom workflows.

LaunchBar 6 is the first paid update to LaunchBar since 2010. If you’re a longtime LaunchBar user, the $19 upgrade price is well worth it. There’s also now a free version of LaunchBar, that gives you access to all the features, but has a limit on how frequently you can launch it.

The all-new look.

LaunchBar 6 Themes

Bigger font. Central location on the screen. It’s reminiscent of Alfred a bit (and even the new Spotlight coming in Yosemite), but yet it’s still very LaunchBar-y.

I like the new look quite a bit. Still has some of the things I like about LaunchBar, but with some cool things from Alfred brought over.

And there are themes: Bright, Dark, Default, Frosty, and Small. The “Small” theme is the previous LaunchBar design seen in version 5. I personally like the “Frosty” theme — it has an iOS 7- (and now Yosemite-)esque transparency to it. You can also customize your own theme if you want, though it’s a hack.

Actions, Extensions, and Workflows

LaunchBar has always come with some clever actions built in. For example, you can create a TinyURL link, send a tweet, eject any and all ejectable volumes that are mounted to your Mac, have Mail refresh in the background, upload images to Flickr, and more.

Many of these actions and workflows are things which OS X already handles, and LaunchBar just makes it easier to get to. And they aren’t necessarily all actions that do something, but also can serve as quick access to various things.

For example, there is an action that lets you browse the list of all currently open Safari tabs. So, say you want to email or tweet a link to one of the 41 tabs that you know you have open. You don’t have to navigate to Safari and peruse through all the tabs to find the one — you can use LaunchBar to scroll through your list of currently open Safari tabs, find the one you want and then act on that URL (which means you could convert it to a short URL, you could use it as the body text for composing a new email, you could tweet it out, you could simply copy it to the clipboard, etc.).

LaunchBar 6 is more flexible when it comes to the ability for users to create their own workflows and custom actions. Not only can you create Automator Workflows that interact with LaunchBar (receiving input, sending back results, etc.), but you can also write your own custom actions.

There is a documentation page on the Objective Development website which gives more details about how to write LaunchBar Actions.

I’ve been using the new LaunchBar for 10 weeks now, and I’ve yet to create a single custom action of my own that I didn’t already have in my previous versions of the app (such as a my custom Pinboard and Amazon searches). For one, I’m not a very good scripting programmer so I don’t even really know where to start. And perhaps I’m just not imaginative enough to think up ways my computing time would benefit from a custom action.

Because from where I’m sitting, all the built-in actions are pretty great already.

On Twitter, I asked any Alfred users to share what their must-have custom workflows were. Many answers were for things that LaunchBar already does out of the box: toggling Bluetooth, sending a tweet, doing a custom search on a website, adding a new task to Reminders, creating a new calendar event, and more.

One big difference between LaunchBar’s custom actions and Alfred’s is that with the latter you can assign a global hotkey to execute the action. But I use Keyboard Maestro to run all the custom scripts and macros that I want to be hotkey executable (such as this one which will take the current Safari tab and open it in Chrome).

Usage Reports

LaunchBar now keeps track of how often you open the Bar, what actions you perform, and how much time you’re saving. You can view your usage report by bringing up LaunchBar and hitting Opt+Cmd+U (or click the gear and click on Usage).

Live Search Results

You know how in Google when you’re typing in a search, the suggestions auto populate? That now happens in LaunchBar as well. It works with Google, Wikipedia, and a few others. Plus you can create your own custom live searches via LaunchBar Actions.

Emoji

LaunchBar 6 Emoji

Your emails, iMessages, and whatever else just got ten times more fancy with quick access to Emoji from within LaunchBar. Just type in “Emoji” and drill down. (Hi, Casey!)

Better iCloud Calendar and Reminders Integration

You can create iCloud reminders and calendar events from within the app.

If you use reminders often, you can set up a shortcut to the specific iCloud Reminders list that you use most often to bring that one up right away. And because you can send text and things into LaunchBar, you could easily create reminders from selected text or URLs, etc.

You can also toggle which reminder lists and which calendars are indexable if you have some misc lists that you don’t use.

Unfortunately, using natural language for assigning dates and times to a reminder (such as: “take out the trash tomorrow at 2pm”) doesn’t translate to applying that specified time to the reminder (a limitation of Reminders, not LaunchBar). However, you can assign dates and times using the @ symbol and direct time stamps (with the date going before the time).

LaunchBar Reminders integration

As you can see in the above screenshot, how the reminder (or meeting) info is parsed is displayed within LaunchBar’s columns. The text of the reminder is “call mom” the calendar date is this coming Friday, June 13, and the time for the reminder is 5:30pm.

Using LaunchBar to create reminders isn’t bad, but Fantastical’s support for Reminders is a bit better because Fantastical has a superior natural language parser.

In addition to creating reminders, you can also view all the reminders in your list and even mark them as completed from within LaunchBar.

LaunchBar Completed Reminders

In short, LaunchBar now operates as a full-fledged iCloud Reminders client. Not bad if you prefer to use Apple’s Reminders app, but wish there was a better form of quick entry from the Mac.

Aside: thoughts on Application Launchers and their relationship with other apps and services

So long as we’re talking about how you can use LaunchBar to create calendar events and reminders, it brings up a question of just how integrated we want our application launcher to be with our other apps?

For example, LaunchBar has a “Send to OmniFocus Inbox” action that will take whatever bit of text, file, URL, or the like that you’ve sent in to LaunchBar and then create a new task in OmniFocus with that item. It’s quite clever and helpful, but it’s also the same functionality as the OmniFocus’s built-in Clipper.

You can also add Fantastical events with LaunchBar, control iTunes, refresh Mail, and more. The list goes on for how LaunchBar (and Alfred) integrate with other apps.

But there are many times where I prefer to use the native integration of my apps. There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument, of course. Take Fantastical for example: if you use LaunchBar to send an event to Fantastical then the advantage is that you only need to remember your LaunchBar shortcut key. Evoke the app, get Fantastical selected, hit space and type your calendar entry, then launch that text in to Fantastical and finalize the new event. But, I prefer the way Fantastical works when entering a new event. And so that means I have to remember my keyboard shortcut for launching Fantastical.

The advantage of using an application launcher as your central repository for anything and everything is that there is less to remember. However, the integration with the various apps and services is not always as polished compared to the native input methods built in to those apps themselves.

LaunchBar Tips

With an app that can do so much, sometimes it’s tough to know where to start. Here are a few tips for things I do.

  • Quick Send: If you hold Command+Space while there’s an item that is selected in the Finder or text that is selected in an app, then that item will be “sent” to LaunchBar and you can then act on it.

    For example, if I need to crop and resize an image in Photoshop, I’ll navigate to that image in the Finder, then hold Command+Space to bring up LaunchBar with the item selected.

    LaunchBar Instant Send

    Do you see the orange block arrow icon? That means LaunchBar is ready to act on that item, and whatever I type next is the action LaunchBar will take on the selected item. Typing “photoshop” will then give me the option to open that image in Photoshop. I hit Enter and off we go.

    I could type “flickr” instead and then be given the option to upload the image to Flickr, via OS X’s system level service.

  • Getting a contact’s address / email / phone number: When you’ve brought up LaunchBar, search for a contact’s name. Then, hit the right arrow key and you have access to their address card fields. From their you can select their phone number or email for copy and pasting into whatever application you’re working in. Great for when someone emails you asking for the contact info of a mutual friend, or a business contact. Or heck, if someone is on the other side of the room and asks for a phone number, you can display it in large type on your 27-inch monitor because why not?

  • Navigating and acting on recent documents in apps: No only can you use LaunchBar to launch any app on your computer, but LaunchBar also has visibility into the documents that you’ve recently had open in that app.

    So, say you want to open that spreadsheet again. Bring up LaunchBar and get Numbers selected. Then, tap the right arrow and you can drill down to see all the recent documents. And from there you have far more options than just to open them — you can tag them with a color, attach them to a new email message, preview them in QuickLook, and more.

  • Clipboard history: It boggles my mind that OS X doesn’t have some sort of clipboard history by default. Once you’ve used an app that manages and tracks your clipboard history you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it. The fact that now, Copy/Cut is not a potentially destructive action.

    To access your clipboard history in LaunchBar go to the Preferences → Clipboard. Make sure that “Show clipboard history” is selected, and set a hotkey for it. I use Opt+Cmd+\.

  • Creating custom abbreviations: If old habits die hard, you can create your own custom abbreviations, such as “ical” for the Calendar app. To do this just get the app, bookmark, file, whatever that you want as the selection in LaunchBar. Then click on the item (you’ll see the “open” menu when your mouse hovers over), down towards the bottom of the popup menu you’ll see an option to Assign abbreviation.

  • Creating custom searches: you can set up custom searches on Amazon, Pinboard, Giphy, your own website, etc. All you need to know is how the search term interacts with the website in the URL.

    Here’s how: Bring up LaunchBar and click the Gear icon in the right side of the Bar. Go to Index → Show Index. Then go to Web → Search Templates. Create a new one for the website you want, and simply put an asterisk to serve as LaunchBar’s wild card to know where you want the search result to show up.

    For example, this will launch a search on Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/s/&field-keywords=*

    This will launch a search on Giphy:

    http://giphy.com/search/*

    To use your custom search, just bring up LaunchBar and type the initials for the search you want. When you have it selected, hit space and a text box will show up. Then type your search into the field and hit enter. LaunchBar will send you to that URL. Magic.

    LaunchBar also has a ton of pre-built search templates, such as for the iTunes store, Mac App store, Google, Dictionary, Wikipedia, and more.

Additional resources

The Take Control of LaunchBar book has a ton of information, though it’s not yet updated for LaunchBar 6.

And Macworld has several articles with tips and tricks: here, here, and here.

Publishing this site is my full-time job. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting the site by becoming a member. There are some great perks.