Quicksilver

Quicksilver will change the way you use your computer. That is not a claim to make lightly, but after using Quicksilver on my Mac for the past eight years it is one that I can make in confidence. Learning Quicksilver can take some time, but the payoff is worth the effort. My goals here are to help you wrap your head around using an alternative input and interaction mechanism, to empower you to speed through mundane or repetitive tasks, and provide you the tools to stop thinking about your computer and start using it. Quicksilver is an application launcher, file browser, and much more.

I like to tell my kids that nothing worth doing is easy, and that every accomplishment is first a challenge. Like learning to ride a bike. When we first set out to ride a bike we are unsteady, off balance, and unsure of ourselves. We make mistakes in judgment and pedal too lightly or not at all, we hold on to the handlebars for dear life, mistakenly assuming that if we just hold on tight enough we wont fall and skin our knee again. But we do fall, and knees are skinned and elbows bruised… but we get back up and try again. One day Dad lets go of the bike, in spite of your pleading for him not to, and you roll on your own, you feel your balance, press on the pedals, pumping one leg and then another, suddenly sure, suddenly getting it. What seemed like a chore before is now exhilarating, you can fly like the wind! Once you’ve learned you can’t go back, and you never forget.

The reason you can jump on a bike and start to ride long after you last got off is thanks to a type of memory commonly known as “muscle memory”. It is the same reason you don’t forget how to walk, or, more to the point, how to type. Using Quicksilver is like that; you use several parts of your brain at once, and interact using at least two senses, touch and sight.

Once actions become automatic, it frees higher thinking to allow you to focus on the bigger picture of why you need a certain task done. You want to open a TextEdit document so you can write out a grocery list; you do not want to stop to think about where the text editor application is, what it is named, or how to use it. Once you have TextEdit open, if you are an experienced typist, the words can drop straight from your mind onto the page because you know the feel of the keyboard, you know where the keys that make the words you need to type are, you can think at a high enough level to abstract away the need to “hunt and peck” for individual letters.

Steve Jobs once told a story of a story he read in Scientific American that measured the efficiency of animals as they travelled a kilometer. What they found was that human beings rated about a third of the way down from the top, with the Condor rating first. Luckily, one of the researchers had the insight to measure a man on a bicycle, and found that the ratio of speed to energy converted was way higher than any other animal.

And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is… it’s the most remarkable tool we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.

Learning Quicksilver will make you faster and more efficient in your everyday tasks. It will free up time for your brain to work on much harder problems, and most importantly, it will make using your computer fun maybe for the first time.

You may not see yourself as a craftsman, but if you care enough about what you do to 1) use a Mac, and 2) be reading this post, I wager that you may be the type of person who cares deeply about the tools they use. Personally, I tend to gravitate towards a philosophy I like to call “The Principle of Least Software”. The principle states that one should “use only the software that they absolutely need, no more, and no less.” Using fewer applications, but knowing them better, tends to allow a person to uncover hidden functionality they didn’t know existed, boosting productivity and making them a happier computer user. Part of being intimately familiar with your tools is understanding not only the how and the why, but also the what. So, while I’d like to dive right in to the how and why, first we should take a look at the history of Quicksilver.

History

Some history for the application can be found on its Wikipedia page, but the section is quite brief. One interesting point is that the symbol for the Quicksilver icon, ☿, comes from the alchemical symbol for mercury, which was once known as quicksilver. For years I wondered what that was.

Quicksilver began development in 2003, which is also the year I first bought a Mac. In 2004 Merlin Mann first posted about appending to a text file with Quicksilver, and was followed by tutorials and how-to articles for years from several other sites, including The Apple Blog, where I was once a contributor. Quicksilver was initially developed by Nicholas Jitkoff, known as Alcor, and distributed as freeware. Merlin did an interview with Alcor in 2004, where he discussed the origins of Qucksilver.

Quicksilver started out as a module based applescript for OS 9 using a healthy dose of AKUA Sweets. It basically supported drag and drop and performing of some basic actions and scripts on the dropped items or the finder selection. It launched stuff too, but was an unwieldy dialog of applications you had to sift through. The initial point of it was to speed up day to day tasks like emailing and file manipulation. It sometimes took longer to do stuff using it than by hand, but was mostly a fun toy. The idea behind it was sound, and that is what made it through to the OS X incarnation. The focus has not changed since the beginning, but the implementation has become far more flexible (though perhaps less reliable.)

Alcor did his best to keep Quicksilver current and add features as requested, but slowly he began to fall behind. When Alcor was hired by Google in 2006 or 2007 (I couldn’t find an exact date), Quicksilver development slowed almost to a halt, and in November of 2006 the source code was released.

The future for Qucksilver looked bleak. Although it had been released as open source, no major progress was being made. Alcor gave an interview to Lifehacker in December of 2007, where he stated:

I’m inclined to encourage users to move over to the more stable and well supported alternatives like LaunchBar.

Mac OS X moved on, bugs accumulated, and hope for the once amazing Quicksilver drifted away.

In 2010 a new group of developers adopted the stagnant Quicksilver code, bought a new domain (qsapp.com), and started the long, arduous task of breathing new life into the beloved app.

In the early months of 2011, several developers worked vigorously to bring Quicksilver back to its former glory, and to what you see today.

The LoveQuicksilver site lists Patrick Robertson, Rob McBroom, and Philip Dooher as the primary contributors to the current iteration of the project. After years of work, Quicksilver today is stable, powerful, and continuously updated. It has once again gained the attention of third party developers. Alcor’s creation has gained a second life, thanks to his foresight in releasing the code as open source. If he had kept it to himself, there is little doubt that Quicksilver would have completely fallen out of use by now.

Setup

Now that we understand a bit of how we got to where we are, let’s get started.

Quicksilver can be downloaded from qsapp.com. Once downloaded, drag and drop to the Applications folder from the disk image just like any other Mac app. The first time Quicksilver is launched a wizard will run asking for some basic information and suggesting a few plugins to install. Accepting the defaults is fine, although I make one change, I always remove the hotkey for Spotlight from the System Preferences, and reassign “⌘ Space” to Quicksilver.

An aside. Quicksilver features are enabled through plugins, so you can choose which features you want and which you do not need. This also enables third party developers to add integration between Quicksilver and their app. I currently have 22 plugins installed (although the white bezel plugin I could do without).

Once the wizard is finished, you will be presented with the Quicksilver bezel. This is where you think about what you want to do. Write an email? Type “Mail”, then press return. Browse the web? Type “Safari”, then press return. Open your Documents folder? Type “Documents”, then press return. Easy. You don’t have to type the entire name of what you want to interact with, just type enough to recognize the icon, then press return. This is the most basic use of Quicksilver, but it barely scratches the surface of what it can do.

It is good to use the app like this for a while. Get comfortable with launching applications and browsing your files this way. Once you have ⌘ Space mapped in your mind to “doing something”, it is time to explore a bit more of what it can do.

As I alluded to earlier, there have been many, many tutorials on how to setup and use Quicksilver. Most recently, a pair by App Storm:

  • Quicksilver: The Best Free Way to Do Everything With Just Your Keyboard - Link
  • Mastering Quicksilver: The Basics - Link

43 Folders still sports some of the best:

  • Getting started (or reacquainted) with Quicksilver - Link
  • Classic “The Merlin Show” video on proxies - Link

Merlin’s proxies video was a revelation for me. I still have Ctrl-Space mapped to Current Application -> Show Menu Items.

  • In fact, the entire 43 Folders archive on Quicksilver is well worth perusing. - Link
  • The Apple Blog (now part of GigaOm) published a series of tutorials back in the day, including this list - Link

Pick and choose at will, most tutorials, even the old ones, are still valid.

Use

Quicksilver has become an integrated part of my workflow. I use it daily for:

  • Opening SSH sessions to servers
  • Searching DuckDuckGo
  • Searching Pinboard
  • Launching applications
  • Controlling iTunes
  • Finding buried menu items
  • Composing quick emails and
  • Setting reminders

I’m a systems administrator during the day, so launching new secure shell sessions is something I do more times than I can count in the course of a day. I also search DuckDuckGo, often using the bang syntax to extend the search to other sites. When searching DuckDuckGo, I use the Vi keyboard bindings to navigation search results, which, nine times out of ten, means I never need to move my hands from the keyboard to find the information that I’m looking for from the time I decide I need to search till the time I close the browser.

In the keyboard preferences, I have the checkbox for “Use all F1, F2, etc. keys as standard function keys” checked. I then remap F7 - F12 to control iTunes forward, play/pause, next, and volume. I also use the main Quicksilver bezel to start playing playlists.

Quicksilver is deep; the more I use it the more of it’s capabilities I use. My latest example is browsing Safari history and bookmarks using a slightly different setting in the Spacebar behavior. In Quicksilver preferences, the Preferences pane (yes, I know), and Command, the second section is labeled “Search”, and the first option is “Spacebar behavior”. I set the spacebar to “Show Item’s Contents”, which lets me pull up Safari, hit the spacebar twice, and start typing to search my history. I find this to be a better option that having Safari’s history as part of the general catalog because I don’t like having my initial search results being unnecessarily cluttered.

This trick doesn’t just work with Safari; any application that keeps a history of documents, or includes a plugin, should work.

Understanding Quicksilver requires a bit of a change to your mental model of how you interact with your computer. The work is well worth the effort though, the payoff comes when you start calling Quicksilver without even thinking about it, flying through tasks that once slowed you down. It is like the difference in learning to type, where once you used to hunt and peck, and now your fingers simply know where to go.

It’s also a bit like learning to ride a bike.