Alfred for Mac (free with optional “Powerpack” purchase) is one of my favorite applications for one simple reason: usefulness. Alfred lets me launch apps, find files, control iTunes and so much more with simplicity and tremendous efficiency.
Now, Alfred’s developers have released a companion app for the iPhone and iPad called Alfred Remote ($4.99, universal for iPhone and iPad). Essentially, it turns your device into a little command center, from which you can open software or folders on your Mac, fiddle with the preferences, control iTunes and more.
It’s compelling…and a bit divisive. When Alfred Remote was introduced, a few people wondered….why? If you’re sitting at your Mac, with your hands on your keyboard and mouse, why reach for your iPad or iPhone to do something like launch an app or open a folder? I’ve got an answer, which I’ll share in this article. But first, a little history.
Years ago I fell in love with a piece of software called Quicksilver, which let me launch apps by hitting a few keys. Quicksilver saved me so much time. It kept me from having to grab my mouse, double-click the hard drive and scroll through the applications folder, just to find the app I wanted. Instead, I could simply it a hotkey combination, type the first couple of letters of an app’s name and there it was. Do this several times per day, every day, and the time adds up.
Unfortunately, Quicksilver’s original developer ceased development and handed his baby to the folks at GitHub. At that point I decided to find an alternative.
Alfred was the answer.
Alfred debuted in 2011 with three main functions. First, it was an app launcher. Hit a custom hotkey combination (I prefer Command-Spacebar) to reveal its little text input window. Start typing and a list of apps appears. Now just keep typing until the one you’re after makes its way to the top of the list or hit the key combination that will launch it.
For example, look at the image below. I could hit Return to launch Slack, Command-3 to open Safari or Command-5 to launch SoundStudio.
Next, Alfred 1.0 was a navigation tool that let you quickly find files on your Mac. With a few simple keystrokes, you could find that Keynote presentation, move it to a new folder, attach it to an email and more. Again, this was crazy useful.
Finally, Alfred was part web service. For example, you could tell Alfred “Search Google Maps for ‘…’,” “Open Twitter user ‘…’,” or “Ask Wolfram ‘…’.” There were similar options for Amazon, Linked In, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, local weather and more.
Today, Alfred supports complex, custom “workflows,” which string together several actions, one after another. For example, you can have Alfred launch a group of applications all at once. People even began sharing the workflows they created, making an already useful app became even more so.
Earlier this month, the team behind Alfred released a new complimentary app called Alfred Remote for the iPhone and iPad. Like its sibling Alfred, Alfred Remote lets you launch apps and trigger actions on your Mac, but from the iPad or iPhone’s screen. It’s like having a little Star Trek control panel on your desk. Just tap an icon and presto! An app launches on your Mac. Or a folder opens, a website appears, iTunes starts playing and more.
I had a chance to talk to Vero Pepperrell, co-founder of Alfred’s parent company, Running With Crayons Ltd., about the software’s origin, uses and future.
AWT: Tell me a little about what inspired Alfred Remote.
Vero: We’ve had an iPad since the day they were released, and both Andrew and I have gone through phases of intense use, and phases where the iPad would gather dust in the corner. It seemed like a missed opportunity as it was a great touchscreen that could be used as a controller for other things.
Meanwhile, we, and many Alfred users, were starting to reach that peak point where you have so many workflows and hotkeys that it became tricky to remember them all.
Matching the need and the opportunity made so much sense; the languishing iPad could become a handy control panel for Alfred with helpful visual cues to take off the burden of memory off my sieve-like brain.
We’ve both been using Remote for a few months while it was in development, and using my Mac without Remote now feels like using it without a keyboard or a mouse; something essential’s missing!
AWT: When Alfred Remote was released, a few people were questioning its utility, saying, “This is stuff I can do while I’m seated at my Mac.” How do you envision Alfred Remote being used?
Vero: Since the early days and throughout the release, the primary way we’ve been using Remote is on a stand at our desks, as some sort of Star Trek’esque command centre.
Through the release week, I’d set up a page of files and folders I needed quick access to, like logos and videos I needed to send out to everyone. I also had a page of clipboard snippets so that I could answer questions quickly and efficiently, without having to learn a new set of keywords.
Users have also created some fantastic Remote-friendly workflows already; A Spotify Mini Player Remote page (http://alfred-spotify-mini-player.com), a VLC control panel, a Flickr Library remote, and we’ve even seen a user control the lighting system in their house.
In other words, Remote effectively allows you to create remote controls for your own apps and services via Alfred’s existing workflows format, whether they’re actions you use from your desk or remotely while sitting on the sofa
AWT: I’ve been using it to jump right to oft-used folders on my Dropbox. I’m amazed at how quickly they open on my Mac. Do you have a favorite Alfred Remote “trick”? Or, have you seen interesting use cases from customers?
Vero: My personal favourite has to be my “Morning” workflow. Before I’ve even opened both eyes, I can tap the coffee bean icon on Remote and it launches all of the essentials to start working; A few sites in Safari, a couple of key applications and my to-do list app.
It’s been incredibly helpful in avoiding the early-morning procrastination where you find yourself idly opening and closing Facebook three times before starting work. (You know the drill…) 😉
AWT: I know this is probably a premature question, but what’s on tap for Alfred Remote?
Vero: In fact, Andrew’s already bubbling with ideas for future features for Remote. As we’ve done with Alfred itself over the past 5 years, we chose iterative and stable releases over releasing every feature at once – It helps avoid overwhelming users with all features at once, and allows users to grow with the app.
One of the key additions we have in mind is more interactivity between Remote and Alfred on your Mac; For example, the ability to input text from the iPad/iPhone to send to your Mac. It’ll allow for much more dynamic interaction with the Mac.
I’ve had my iPad next to my keyboard for about a week running Alfred Remote, and I have to say it’s been helpful. Opening folders that live on Dropbox with a simple tap is terribly convenient. I haven’t looked into creating more involved workflows like Vero mentioned, but now I’m keen to. Plus I feel a little like Commander Data when I’m tapping away on a glowing, electronic screen to make things happen. That’s a good thing.
Considering Alfred Remote? Make it so.