Application Scripting is Weird

There’s a tendency in the Apple world to paint AppleScript as some uniquely weird inconsistent language. I’m usually amused by that, because then the person doing that will use shell as an example of a consistent language. Which is highly amusing.

But here’s the the thing: the core language, the core AppleScript syntax is really quite consistent. It’s when you get into scripting applications that things get weird, because app devs are not consistent in how they implement things.

So let’s take a look at it via Excel, which has the advantages of being scriptable in wildly different languages on a different platform. We’re going to do a fairly simple set of steps:

  1. Open an excel file
  2. Set a range of columns to be formatted as a table
  3. sort that table by the first column ascending

AppleScript

Here’s how we do this in AppleScript:

set theExcelFile to "pathtofile" as POSIX file
tell application "Microsoft Excel"
     activate
     open theExcelFile
     set theWorkbook to the active workbook
     set theWorksheet to active sheet of theWorkbook
     set theRange to get entire column of range ("A:H")
     set theList to make new list object at theWorksheet with properties {range object:theRange}
     set theSort to sort object of theList
     set theSortRange to sortrange of theSort
     sort theSortRange key1 (column "$A:$A" of theSortRange) order1 sort ascending
end tell

I mean, if you know Excel, and how “Format as Table” actually creates a list object, and sorts are weird within a table/list object, and you script Excel a LOT, this makes sense. You:

  1. Create the path to the file
  2. Tell Excel to start/activate
  3. Tell Excel open the file
  4. Create a reference to the active workbook
  5. Create a reference to the active (work) sheet of the active workbook reference
  6. Create a range of columns
  7. Make a new list object (format as table) in the active sheet for the range you just created and create a reference to that list object
  8. Create a reference to the built in sort object of the list object
  9. Create a reference to the sortrange of that sort object reference
  10. sort the sortrange reference by the first column of the sortrange in ascending order

Okay, so what about say, PowerShell on windows? That has to be way less application-specific right? Surely it’s not that weird…

Powershell

$fileToOpen = "fullpathtofile" 
$excelObject = New-Object -ComObject Excel.Application 
$excelFileObject = $excelObject.Workbooks.Open($fileToOpen)
$excelFileWorksheet = $excelFileObject.ActiveSheet 
$excelFileWorksheetRange = $excelFileWorksheet.Range("A1","H1").entireColumn 
$excelFileTableObject = $excelFileWorksheet.ListObjects.add([Microsoft.Office.Interop.Excel.XlListObjectSourceType]::xlSrcRange,$excelFileWorksheetRange,$null,[Microsoft.Office.Interop.Excel.XlYesNoGuess]::xlYes)
$excelFileTableObject.Sort.SortFields.add($excelFileTableObject.Range.Columns.item(1),0,1)
$excelFileTableObject.Sort.Apply() (actually perform the sort)
$excelObject.Visible = $true 

Obviously this is totally different, because here we:

  1. Create the path to the file
  2. Tell Excel to start/activate
  3. Tell Excel to open the file
  4. Create a reference to the active workbook
  5. Create a reference to the active (work) sheet of the active workbook reference
  6. Create a range of columns
  7. Make a new list object (format as table) in the active sheet for the range you just created and create a reference to that list object
  8. Create a sort object made up of the list object specifying the column to search on and how
  9. Apply the sort object to the list object
  10. Actually make the excel file visible

Oh yeah, that’s totally different and that syntax is just as bog-standard PowerShell as can be, unlike that Excel AppleScript which has nothing to do with core AppleScript. 🙄

If you were to do the same thing in Numbers, you’d see a similar syntax, because applications have specific needs that a core language for an OS does not. Any language that can be extended to fit the needs of a specific application is going to get weird based on the needs, features, and naming conventions of the application. For example, “Table” in Excel can cover a lot of very different things. “Table” in Numbers covers basically one thing, it’s not like Numbers has Pivot Tables. So doing table operations in Numbers is similar, but not identical to format as table in Excel.

Any language supporting application scripting is going to get weird as more applications use it. It’s the unavoidable nature of the beast.

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Azure Management tip for PowerShell on MacOS

The other day I was messaging back and forth with a good friend and former minion who was talking about a roadblock he’d hit with trying to use PowerShell on a Mac to manage Azure servers. We talked a bit, and then I went hunting and stumbled on a way to do this, so I thought I should share it with you.

In this specific case, he was trying to manage his Exchange instance, and when he’d run Connect-ExchangeOnline, he’d get the web auth dialog, authenticated, and then get the following error:

Exception: This parameter set requires WSMan, and no supported WSMan client library was found. WSMan is either not installed, or unavailable for this system.

I tried it myself and got the same error, so I started poking. A bit of searching on the PowerShell Gallery led me to PSWSMan, and the docs for that helped me then run Install-WSMan (part of this for the Mac uses MacPorts, fyi.) You have to do the install as root, but once you’ve installed the modules and enabled, them, then you should be able to do many Azure things via PowerShell from your Mac.

If you’re ever trying to find a PowerShell module, I cannot recommend PowerShell Gallery enough as a starting point, it’s an amazing resource.

Fun with Get-Command

So when doing shell things in macOS, (or Linux for that matter), you use things like “which” and “locate” a lot. They’re handy. Well, PowerShell, unsurprisingly has its own version, Get-Command, (Full syntax and examples at the Get-Command documentation page.)

There’s a lot there, but I wanted to talk about just two cases, getting a single command, and getting a list of similar commands. So if you just run Get-Command on a single command, i.e. Get-Command pwsh, you get:

single command results

So this looks nice, but it’s functional. Let’s redo that command, but assign it to a variable: $thePwshCommand = Get-Command pwsh

If we just run the variable name, $thePwshCommand, you see the same thing as you would for Get-Command pwsh. So like any generic string, but with some nicer display formatting right? Well, no. As it turns out, the results of Get-Command are not just a string as shown by $thePwshCommand.GetType():

results of GetType()

So as we see, it’s not a string, but rather something called CommandInfo. What does this mean? Well, let’s say you don’t care about the type of executable a command is, or the version, you just want the path. No string parsing needed, just use $thePwshCommand.Source:

Et voila, no parsing of any kind needed

Since CommandInfo is a kind of object, you have some fun options for using what it returns without having to dink around with sed, grep, or what have you. The language and runtime take care of it for you.

But wait, there’s more. Now, as we can see, I’m running a preview version of PowerShell. Which means there’s a chance that there’s other versions of pwsh on my system. (By default, Get-Command returns the first hit it finds.) So how do we get all the versions of pwsh? Wildcards Get-Command pws*:

all the pws* things

so as we can see, there’s a few things. But what happens if we use a var for that? Well, it’s kind of neat…first the command, $allThingsPwsh = Get-Command pws*. If we just display the var, we get about what we expect for $allThingsPwsh:

No surprises here

So that’s another CommandInfo object right? Nope, as $allThingsPwsh.GetType() shows us:

Well that’s different

So when you get multiple items returned, it’s now an array, of CommandInfo objects. So if we want to see the second item, we get just that entry for $allThingsPwsh[1]:

Second item in the array

But as it’s an array of objects, we gets more flexibility, like if we just want to see the path for that entry, we use $allThingsPwsh[2].Source:
/usr/local/bin/pwsh-preview

If we just want the paths for all the items, we use $allThingsPwsh.Source, and we get:
/usr/local/microsoft/powershell/7-preview/pwsh
/usr/local/bin/pwsh
/usr/local/bin/pwsh-preview

If we just want the name and the path separated by a tab, easily done with
$allThingsPwsh[2].Name + "`t" +  $allThingsPwsh[2].Source:
pwsh-preview /usr/local/bin/pwsh-preview

So yeah, because PowerShell understands objects and arrays better than things like shell, you get a lot of flexibility in the command, saving you from a lot of the endless string/output parsing legerdemain you have to do with shell.

For more info on arrays:
https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/powershell/scripting/learn/deep-dives/everything-about-arrays?view=powershell-7.2 and https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/powershell/module/microsoft.powershell.core/about/about_arrays?view=powershell-7.2

Enjoy!

Porting an Application from AppleScriptObjectiveC to Xamarin/C#

This ended up taking less time than I thought it would, as it turns out, about 90% of the work I did on the Swift version was usable with little modifications in the Xamarin version. Like mostly differences between variable declarations in C# vs Swift, object inits, etc.

Links:

ASOC Original
Swift Version
Xamarin/C# Version

So in terms of just coding, MS and the Xamarin team have done a really good job. Like, there’s very few things that actually tripped me up going from Cocoa to Xamarin. Usually, it was odd things, like having to use Environment.Username to get the current user name because NSUsername() isn’t an option, or similar. Like little things that are annoying more than OH GOD NO. The syntax MS uses for the .NET Core Mac bits is really similar to the Swift implementation in Cocoa, which is a huge benefit to anyone looking to use VS.

I think a lot of that is just C# and .NET being things that have existed for a while outside of the Mac, and so you’re going to have odd little differences where they’re not going to implement NSUsername() when they have something that already works.

As an aside, Git is just awful, can someone please invent something that doesn’t have a UI/UX that only Linus Torvalds could love? Also, VS’s Git interface is…it is a thing, it exists but it is not very good even for simple things. Also, if you have any idea you may ever want to use Github et al for your project ALWAYS SAY YOU WANT TO USE GIT WHEN YOU CREATE THE PROJECT. Ye gods did dealing with that suck.

The major thing is dealing with the UI. It’s very reminiscent of when Interface Builder was not a part of Xcode. To build a UI in Visual Studio, you basically shell out to Xcode, build your storyboards there, then dump back in to VS. No SwiftUI yet, but there’s no reason you couldn’t do it. (It is still amusing to me that VS will have native ARM support on the Mac before it does on Windows.) You also need Xcode to publish to the MAS if that is your wish. I’m honestly not sure there’s a way to not need Xcode for the UI bits that wouldn’t be more trouble than it’s worth, but I could be wrong, and I’d be happy to be wrong.

Could you use Visual Studio: Mac for “real” development or cross-platform development? I think you could and if they fix a few relatively minor issues, it would be not awful at all.

I mean, for the purposes of my experiment, I was rather happy with VS/Xamarin/C#/.NET, and I am glad I’ve done the work I have in PowerShell, that was quite a help. Now, if you could use PowerShell in VS:Mac, that would be awesome, since you know, PowerShell is available for the Mac and all.

Just sayin’…

Sometimes, High-Level Languages don’t suck

So recently, as an exercise, I wanted to see about moving one of my simpler ASOC (AppleScript ObjectiveC) applications to a different language. Then I thought, why not two? So the first one I’ve been working with is C# via Visual Studio on the Mac (the 2022 preview). It’s um…interesting. First, you still need Xcode to do all the UI setup. I’m not sure why, and it’s a bit janky, but it’s not bad per se.

I think the Xamarin docs need a lot more sample code, it’s really intimidating if you’re new to the platform. But anyway, part of this app, ScutilUtil (https://github.com/johncwelch/ScutilUtil) uses the scutil command to pull info about the computer’s host name. (There may be a “proper” way to do it, but that’s not worth the search when scutil is right there.) To do so, you run scutil with various switches. i.e. /usr/sbin/scutil --get ComputerName to get the computer name.

In ASOC, this is trivial, literally one line thanks to AppleScript’s ‘do shell script’ command:

set my theCurrentComputerName to do shell script "/usr/sbin/scutil --get ComputerName"

Easy-peasy. In C#/Xamarin…sigh. The best way I found was:

Process scutilTest = new Process();
scutilTest.StartInfo.UseShellExecute = false;
scutilTest.StartInfo.RedirectStandardOutput = true;
scutilTest.StartInfo.FileName = "/usr/sbin/scutil";
scutilTest.StartInfo.Arguments = " --get LocalHostName";
scutilTest.Start();
string localHostName = scutilTest.StandardOutput.ReadToEnd();
scutilTest.WaitForExit();      

Like, it works right? But really? I mean, yes, this is a very cross-platform way to do it, but all that to run a single one-line command…it seems unelegant, and it seems unelegant on any of the platforms C#/Xamarin run on. Like, macOS/Linux/Windows all have a command line environment. They all have command line utilities that ship with the OS you might want to use because they’re there, and pretty fast.

Why make calling them so hard? Why not have something that gets you closer to do shell script. I mean, out of all of them, the only command/script environments you will never see on all three is cmd.exe, that’s windows-only and AppleScript is macOS – only, (but not something you’d run often in cases like this.) But shell? All three can have it. PowerShell? All three.

So wouldn’t it make more sense to have a way to test for the presence of a command environment, and a way to just use a command environment? Like say:

string localHostName = RunCommand -Environment zsh -Command "/usr/sbin/scutil" -Arguments "--get localHostName" -NoNewWindow -Wait

I’m using PowerShell-ish syntax here, because VS and .NET et al, but you get the idea. You could even have a way to check for a specific command environment if you wanted to be fancy, etc. Again, all the non-phone/non-tablet .NET platforms have a command-line environment of some form. Why not just allow for that to be used easily?

It’s times like these I wish Visual Studio Mac supported PowerShell as a language. Sigh.

Portable PowerShell In an Application Bundle

So obviously, I have a fondness for PowerShell on macOS, but one of the downsides with really integrating it into things is being able to rely on it as a resource. It’d be nice if you could just include it with a script or bundle, so that it was available for that script or application to use as needed.

Well, turns out, you can, thanks to the PowerShell team making some really good decisions in how they distribute PowerShell on macOS. If you download the installer bundle from the PowerShell github site, https://github.com/PowerShell/PowerShell/releases/tag/v7.2.1 (the current stable version as of this post), and you open the bundle up in something like Pacifist, you realize that all the important powershell bits outside of the man page and an app launcher are all in the same directory:

Everything is in that directory

When I saw that, I decided to do a really quick and dirty test of my “Portable PowerShell” thought. So using Script Debugger, I created a script bundle, which is an AppleScript, but in a bundle format, which means it has the Contents/Resources/ tree. I then copied the usr/local/bin/microsoft/powershell/<version> bundle from the install package into the resources folder. In the script bundle itself, I set up the path to that bundle:

set thePwshAlias to ((path to me as text) & "Contents:Resources:powershell:usr:local:microsoft:powershell:7-preview:pwsh") as alias
set thePwshPath to quoted form of (POSIX path of thePwshAlias)

Then the statement that does the test of this:

do shell script thePwshPath & " -c \"Get-PSDrive\""

And the expected result:

Name           Used (GB)     Free (GB) Provider      Root                                 
----           ---------     --------- --------      ----  
/                 782.49        149.06 FileSystem    / 
Alias                                  Alias 
Env                                    Environment 
Function                               Function
Temp              782.49        149.06 FileSystem   /var/folders/0_/h5qr4rfj2     
Variable                               Variable                    

Which was the expected result. Now, some caveats:

  1. This is literally the extent of my testing. Making this work with custom modules, etc, is going to involve more work on the setup, if that’s even possible.
  2. I HAVE NO IDEA IF THE POWERSHELL LICENSE ALLOWS THIS. If the lawyers get flustered and stern, telling them “Well John said you could do it” will result in me laughing and saying “Yes, technically this is possible, I made no claims as to legality. It may be fine, it may be verboten, I have not checked either way.

My thought on this is that if you were creating a cross platform app and you wanted to implement PowerShell for that app, this is a way to ensure it works on macOS without making the user do a bunch of separate installs. It’s a proof of concept that happens to work, so coolness. As I get time, I’ll beat on it more, there’s some real potential here.

Also, many thanks to the PowerShell team for doing things in a way that made this trivial to test and play with.

Things AppleScript does better

Seeing as I’ve (deservedly) been slightly hard on the Apple automation team(s), I’d like to point out that for all its faults, there are things AppleScript does far better than PowerShell, and things that Microsoft could learn from to improve.

  1. Basic UI functions: I’m talking about really basic things that you might want to put in a script, like a UI for choosing a file, a folder, etc. Like this isn’t even close, PowerShell at best is almost as easy as AppleScript for some things, but at worst…ugh. Like to choose a new file, that’s pretty simple:

    $FileBrowser = New-Object System.Windows.Forms.OpenFileDialog -Property @{ InitialDirectory = [Environment]::GetFolderPath('Desktop') }

    $null = $FileBrowser.ShowDialog()


    That’s not significantly worse that AppleScript’s “Choose File” dialog, which forgoes only the ShowDialog() method. The issue is that depending on how you’re running the script, the file browser may show up behind other windows, and there’s no easy way to force it to the front.

    Where PowerShell falls over is if you want the user to enter text in a dialog box. For AppleScript, it’s literally a single line:

    set theReply to text returned of display dialog "I am a dialog" default answer "default text"

    That’s it. That’s all you need. You can also get the button returned or if the gave up flag hit, it’s all in a single record if you want all three.

    In PowerShell, this is like around 30 lines of code where you’re building the OK and Cancel buttons by hand, setting their sizes, etc. That’s ridiculous for something that simple. The same thing for building a list of text items to choose from. In AppleScript:

    set theChoice to choose from list {"one", "two", "three"} with title "Choose from the list" with prompt "Pick something" default items {"one"} with multiple selections allowed without empty selection allowed

    The result is a list of choices.

    PowerShell, again, you have to build the entire dialog by hand. Like, if i’m doing .NET dev in a text editor, sure. But for what should be a higher-level scripting implementation, that’s ridiculous.

    Ironically, in PowerShell in macOS, you can integrate PowerShell with AppleScript UI primitives like Display Dialog easier than you can do the same thing in Windows. Y’all, come on. This is just stupid.
  2. Interacting with applications. The syntax for AppleScript gets a lot of guff, but launching an application in AppleScript and similar is far more intuitive and easier to learn than in PowerShell.

    tell application “Microsoft Excel” to launch

    or if you want it to launch and become active:

    tell application “Microsoft Excel” to activate

    With PowerShell, it can be simple if the application is in a known location, but if not, you have to know the path, etc. Which can be more than a little painful, but that’s an OS issue.

    Being able to just tell an application to do stuff, “tell application “Microsoft Excel”… is also nice when actually interacting with the running application. As opposed to working with the running copy of Excel:

    $theExcelApp=[Runtime.InteropServices.Marshal]::GetActiveObject("Excel.Application")

    This is the part of a higher level language that shouldn’t require this level of work. The level of detail needed to do simple stuff in PowerShell is way higher than it should be.

There’s other items, but some of them depend on syntax preferences. I find the english-ish nature of AppleScript to be helpful, other people hate it, I hate dot languages, I find them unnecessarily obtuse. The two items I listed here cover rather a lot, so it’s not just “oh two things”.

Honestly, this is part of the reason I find Apple’s hostility towards user-created automation via things like AppleScript so infuriating. The OS has a good base, only needing a better system-level automation framework so you can have more coherency across the board for automation, but instead of building on that foundation, it really seems like Apple is moving to gut the entire thing and force you into Shortcuts, Swift or nothing. That’s really quite dumb.

Manually Install PowerShell Modules in macOS

Okay, this is really just so it maybe gets picked up by Google. If you have a custom/homegrown PowerShell Module you want to install in macOS, and have them “live” there as it were, you want to copy the module folder with at least the .psd1 and .psm1 files in it to: ~/.local/share/powershell/Modules. Make sure the module folder has the same name as the module. So in the case of my Get-MacInfo module, (yes, I know, the EFIVersion is a bit weird at the moment), you would create a folder named “Get-MacInfo” in ~/.local/share/powershell/Modules, and copy the Get-MacInfo.psd1 and Get-MacInfo.psm1 files into it, then restart any running powershell sessions. At that point, Get-MacInfo would just work:

% pwsh -c "Get-MacInfo HardwareModelID"
HostName: not set
Name                          Value 
----                          ----- 
HardwareModelID               MacBookPro16,1   

No need to deal with Import-Module et al.