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Quicksilver, A Cult Graphical Interface That Uses Keystrokes, Rises From The Grave

The cult-hit app for Macs gets an open-source spit and polish for OS X Lion.

Quicksilver, A Cult Graphical Interface That Uses Keystrokes, Rises From The Grave

Productivity dorks lurvvvv keyboard shortcuts–why waste precious microseconds dragging a clunky pointer all over the screen when it’s just so much faster to keep your fingers flying on the keys? But the modern computer interface is still primarily a visual one, so unless you want to spend all your time in a Terminal window, resorting to a mouse or trackpad is inevitable… unless you use Quicksilver.

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This application, which lets you do just about anything on a Mac with its ever-expanding suite of artificially intelligent keyboard plug-ins, was one of Lifehackers’ best-kept secrets until its original developer left it for dead. But now Quicksilver has been resurrected by the open-source community, spruced up for OS X Lion, and given some slick-looking visual upgrades to boot. Check out this keyboard-controlled radial menu and tell me using the mouse isn’t a sucker’s game:

OK, let me back up. What the hell does Quicksilver do, exactly? Think of it like Spotlight on steroids, with a dash of Automator thrown in for good measure: It lets you launch applications, manipulate files and settings, and design workflow macros all with the ease of a few keystrokes. You invoke Quicksilver by hitting a keyboard shortcut, which brings up a HUD-like window onscreen that interprets your typed commands into clear, icon-driven visual interactions.

It’s a bit like ifttt.com (“if this, then that”): If you type “Mail,” Quicksilver will call up your mail application’s icon and offer a menu of actions you can take. The most obvious one is to launch the selected app, but Quicksilver’s vast library of plug-ins lets you do so much more: You could write, send, and file a message without leaving Quicksilver. The interaction design turns standard pointing and clicking on its head: Instead of launching applications in order to do stuff, you skip right to the doing-stuff–and because Quicksilver is keyboard-based, you can just start typing words or phrases (or even letters) and the application will instantly start anticipating what you want it to do, like the auto-suggest features in Google or Spotlight. But unlike those utilities, Quicksilver actually learns your patterns. Once you taste Quicksilver’s power, the fluidity is intoxicating–it feels like your computer interactions move at the speed of thought, that you can “act without doing.”

I know: This isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. After years as a charter member of the Quicksilver cult, I ended up defaulting back to Spotlight when I realized that I simply didn’t need Quicksilver’s keyboard-fu as often as I thought I did. But Quicksilver’s interaction design is undeniably brilliant: Who would have thought you could use a graphical user interface without a mouse? On Macs, the mouse is on its way out anyway–which is why porting Quicksilver to the iOS-like OS X Lion feels like the future. Whether it’s directly manipulating visual interfaces with touch or controlling them like a wizard with augmented keystrokes, now more than ever it’s time to let our fingers do the talking.

[Read more about Quicksilver for OS X Lion; top image by Matthias Rhomberg]

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets

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