Want to know what might be the best reason to put a spiffy new Apple (AAPL) - Get Report Mac in your small business office? It's not the hip ads or the easy-on-the-hand keyboard that comes with the iMac, or the ridiculous debate about whether Apples or PCs running the Microsoft (MSFT) - Get Report Windows operating system are faster or easier to use.
Rather, for my small business money, the single most exciting productivity tool probably lies hidden deep inside some Macs: Automator. This piece of code, which Apple describes as a "personal automation assistant," has been enabled with powerful new integration features as part of the new Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac (starting at $400) suite of office software.
Yes, you have to buy the whole Microsoft Office software package toget Automator to work as a small business would want it. And no, thecheaper $150 version of Office for Mac will not support Automator,which comes built in to the Apple OSX operating system. And yes,learning Automator takes time and real effort. But Automator has thepotential to bring once-complex business process programming withinreach of your operations.
Considering how much of what we do in ourdigital working lives is repetitive -- modifying documents, targetingPowerPoint presentations, updating spreadsheets -- Automator createstantalizing options for the smaller business."
In theory, Automator is basic: It lets you sequence functions that go on inside a program with functions that go on outside a program. So, for example, not only can Automator cut and paste text within a Word document -- just like macros for those of a certain computer vintage -- but Automator also allows you to automatically put that text into other applications, say Excel or PowerPoint. It even allows you to store it as a media file or place it in your iPod or other portable device.
Say -- again for argument's sake -- you are fortunate enough to have good clients who hire you over and over. And each client has certain delivery specs -- in my case, how this print story is laid out for delivery.
Using the average office productivity suite, about the most efficient thing you can do to save time on every job -- and make more money -- is to do things like create a style sheet, save it as a master template and then manually import modifications such as job name, job number, date and other data. It usually takes a minute or two to set up a file each time. Not horrendous, but not cutting-edge efficient either.
Automator lets me combine all those steps -- opening the file and entering much of the information, saving the file, putting that file in the right directory -- into just a few simple clicks. So once I made an Automator script that created this
file, I did not need to hunt down the template on my computer to get started and then enter my information in that template.
For this job, and every job for this company from now on, when I start, all I must do is run an Automator script. And poof! I have the properly named file in the proper directory. And what was once 20 clicks is now two.
See the difference? Automator does all the heavy repetitive entering of similar bits of text, picking my way through my file directory and creating file names. I just have to enter the job's particulars and Automator does the rest.
Since Automator works on every bit of software running on this test iMac, essentially anything within the purview of the machine can be sequenced in a series of automatic steps. So say I need to match an invoice to a PowerPoint demo to one of my spreadsheets; I could just enter the new information -- say, client name and current date -- and Automator could do all the work.
How is that for a waaaaaay slick concept for the time-constrained small business arena.
But ... before you run up your
bill investing in all the Apple gear and software you need to get Automator working for you, realize there are major limitations.
First of all, as elegant as Automator is -- all these processes are controlled by a simple drag-and-drop graphically oriented environment that makes you feel like you are hardly programming a computer at all -- you are still programming a modern, powerful computer. And while not particularly hard, it takes time and patience. I found getting features functioning as I wanted them was challenging, in sort of a getting-a-triple-word-score-in-Scrabble kind of way. So those born without the geek gene may be scared off from this product.
And even more importantly, you are wrestling with a live computer program. One that does exactly what you tell it do. No more. No less. And one that can -- and will -- go horribly wrong unless you carefully, and I mean carefully, debug. So do not put business critical stuff into Automator scripts until you have a designated Automator expert on hand to keep you out of the techno-weeds.
Still, for the right operation, the gains possible with Automator are enormous. And it is this simple: Think of how slick it would be to get the boring, repetitive stuff that bogs you down all day out of the way.
And my read here is firm: Somebody, somewhere is going to make a lot of money with Automator. That person might as well be you.
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.