Clippy? Not THAT Clippy!

A recent episode of the Mac Power Users Podcast was a round up of clipboard managers – on iOS and Mac OS. You can find it here.

There was a subsequent newsgroup discussion here which I’ve been participating in.

There are lots of things I want from a clipboard manager. They include:

  1. It to keep a history.
  2. It to enable the text (and, I suppose, images) to be readily processed.
  3. It to sync between devices.

Needs 1 and 3 are readily met by a lot of clipboard managers – as the podcast episode illustrated. Item 2, though, has always intrigued me.

This post deals with that topic – with an experiment using two clipboard managers:

I write in Markdown – a lot. It’s a nice plain text format with lots of flexibility and a simple syntax. So it’s natural my two examples are Markdown-centric.

They’re not identical cases – with the Paste / Shortcuts example being a simpler example.

In both cases, though, the key feature is the use of the clipboard history to “fill in the blanks”. How they approach this is is interesting – and both take a fairly similar approach.

Paste and Shortcuts – A Simple Case

Paste is an independently-developed app that runs on both Mac OS and iPad OS / iOS, with the copied items being sync’ed between all your devices.

It maintains a clipboard history – which this experiment will use.

Shortcuts started out on iOS as Workflow. Apple bought the company and made it a key component of automation on iOS, iPad OS, and (with Monterey) Mac OS. In principle it’s simple to use.

So here’s a simple example. It takes the last two clipboard entries and makes a Markdown link out of them. The link consists of two elements:

  • In square brackets the text that appears.
  • In round brackets the URL for the link.

The following shortcut has 4 steps / actions:

  1. Retrieve the last clipboard item (Position 1).
  2. Retrieve the previous clipboard item (Position 2).
  3. Create text from these two – using a template that incorporates the square and round brackets.
  4. Copy this text to the clipboard.

You compose the shortcut by dragging and dropping the actions.

Here is the shortcut.

There’s a problem in the above in seeing which clipboard item is in which position in the template. On Mac OS clicking on the ambiguous item leads to a dialog:

Click on Reveal and the source of the variable is revealed – with a blue box round it:

Obviously, copying to the clipboard in the right order is important and the above shows how Shortcuts isn’t that helpful here. I suppose one could detect a URL and swap the two clipboard items round as necessary. But that’s perhaps a refinement too far.

I actually developed this shortcut on Mac OS – but I might have been better off doing it on iPad OS. I don’t find the Mac OS Shortcuts app a nice place to develop shortcuts. (Sometimes – but not this time – it’s advisable to develop on the platform the actions are specific to.)

Keyboard Maestro – A Slightly More Complex Case

Keyboard Maestro isn’t really a clipboard manager – but it has lots of clipboard manipulation features. It only runs on Mac OS and is a very powerful automation tool. which makes it ideal for the purposes of this discussion.

In a similar way to Shortcuts, you compose what is called a macro out of multiple actions – using drag and drop.

Here’s the macro:

The first action fills out the template with the last two clipboard items – copying the result back to the clipboard. It’s more direct than the Shortcuts example. Plus, it’s clearer which clipboard item is plugged in where. (The tokens %PastClipboard%0% and %PastClipboard%1% are the latest clipboard item and the one before it – and I like the clarity of the naming.)

The second action activates the Drafts application – which the Shortcuts example didn’t do.

Then it pastes the templated text into the current draft. Again the Shortcuts example didn’t do that.

This, for me, is a more useful version of the “compose a Markdown link” automation. The only downside for me is that it doesn’t run on iPad OS or iOS. But then I do most of my writing on a Mac anyway.

Conclusion

It’s possible, with these two apps at least, to get way beyond just accessing the last thing you copied to the clipboard. (The built-in clipboard capabilities of the operating system won’t get you previous clipboard items.)

Both Shortcuts and Keyboard Maestro are automation tools – so experimenting with them yields a useful conclusion: There can be more value with using the clipboard when you use it with automation.

It should be noted that you needn’t use the clipboard at all if you automate the acquisition of the data. This is true of both Shortcuts and Keyboard Maestro. Both are perfectly capable of populating variables and using them.

However, when it comes to selecting text and using it in a template, user interaction can be handy. And sometimes that needs a clipboard – as the user gathers data from various sources.

This pair of experiments illustrates that approach.

One final note: I haven’t shared editable shortcuts or Keyboard Maestro macros as

  1. These are so very simple you could more readily create them yourself.
  2. You’re going to want to edit them beyond recognition – unless they exactly fit your need.

The point is to encourage you to experiment.

Published by Martin Packer

I'm a mainframe performance guy and have been for the past 35 years. But I play with lots of other technologies as well.

One thought on “Clippy? Not THAT Clippy!

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