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September 19, 2007

Using the Command-Line to Get Things Done

I've written before about Enso, a very interesting project that lets you perform tasks from a command-line that interacts with the user interface. The software comes with some basic commands (like launching programs, performing calculations), but it can be extended with other commands. Enso has recently launched in beta some plug-ins that add new commands.

Let's say you need to translate into French some text from an email message you're composing in Gmail. You'll have to select the text, open a new window or tab, go to Google Translate or other translation service, paste the text, choose the option to translate from English to French, click on a button, select the translation and copy it, go back to Gmail and paste the text. The new translation commands for Enso let you perform the same task much faster: select the text, trigger the command line (press Caps-Lock), type the first letters from the command ("translate to French") and the translated text will replace the selected text. Of course, you won't get a more accurate translation, but at least you won't lose the original context and get distracted by other tasks.

The search commands let you select some text and type the name of one of the supported search services to launch a new page with the corresponding search result. This is faster than using your browser's search features or extensions like Hyperwords because you don't have visually identify the right option from a long list. Unfortunately, these commands defeat the one of the main purposes of Enso: don't lose the context. An alternative way to implement them would be to use APIs like Google AJAX API to display search results without leaving the page. In fact, my favorite use of this API is a tool called Linkify that allows me link to a search result by selecting some text from a textarea and choosing one of the search results displayed in a small sidebar.

There are also commands for controlling music players or to convert LaTeX markup into a nice mathematical expression. Of course, an API would make it easier to build many other plug-ins for Enso.

For now, Enso works only on Windows 2000/XP/Vista and the main program costs $20 (there's a 30-day trial), while all the plug-ins described above are free. I think a better approach would be to pay for some additional commands and make the main program free. When you can find a lot of great software like Google Desktop, Launchy, Quicksilver, Foxytunes, I'm not sure many people are going to pay for Enso.

The software comes from a small company called Humanized that promises "to provide you with the most humane software we are capable of making". Great interfaces, easy to use software, simplicity - I've heard these things before (I wonder where?).

"Some tasks—for instance, teaching a child arithmetic—are intrinsically pretty complicated. But some aren't. Setting the time on a wristwatch, for instance, shouldn't be that hard; on old analog wristwatches, it basically involved pulling out a knob, twisting it until the watch showed the correct time, and pushing the knob back in again. But on newer digital wristwatches—ones that claim to be more powerful and feature-loaded than their analog counterparts—it involves pressing a series of buttons in a hard-to-remember, often unforgiving order. Most people dread setting the time on their digital watches, and for good reason."


  1. Wow, that is a bad French translation!

  2. That's a great quotation about the bad design of watches. Where is it from?

  3. Hi.
    And thank you for mentioning Hyperwords.

    Just wanted to say that you can indeed use commands in Hyperwords.

    Every command has a keyboard shortcut so you can build up quick phrases.

    For example, to look something up in Wikipedia, where you would normally select 'References' and then 'Wikipedia' from the pop-up menu, you can just select the text and type 'r,w'.

    Additionally, you can also get a lot of results right inside the Hyperwords menu, such as conversions and stock prices. Also, Hyperwords translates text right in the page.

    To translate from English to Japanese for example, just select the text and type 't,e,j' which is the same as selecting 'Translate', then 'from English' and finally 'to Japanese' in the menu.

    Please email me at frode at hyperwords dot net if you have any questions or comments.

    There is a demonstration video available on

    Frode Hegland

  4. do you have to hold down the control key to type the commands?

  5. what are command lines?

  6. No, you have to hold down the Caps Lock while typing the command.

  7. "A command line interpreter (also command line shell, command language interpreter) is a computer program that reads lines of text entered by a user and interprets them in the context of a given operating system or programming language. (...) Command line interpreters allow users to issue various commands in a very efficient (and often terse) way. This requires the user to know the names of the commands and their parameters, and the syntax of the language that is interpreted."


  8. sounds complicated. shame.

  9. It's not that complicated. Instead of clicking on a button or finding an option in a menu, you just type what you want. For example, you select "78*56" from a page, and type "calculate" in the command line. You only need to type the first letters of the command because it has autocomplete. Here's a list of some of the commands:

    ask {search terms}

    calculate (four-function)

    ebay {search terms}

    flickr {search terms}

    gmail search {search terms}

    go {window name}

    google {search terms}

    google-blogs {search terms}

    google-define {search terms}

    google-image {search terms}

    google-map {search terms}

    google-news {search terms}

    help {command name}

    imdb {search terms}

    open with {program}

    open {target}

    translate from {language}

    translate to {language}

  10. ok, thank you for the explanation!

  11. It's so awfully bad, it doesn't deserve to be called a translation. Except for the first, short sentence you have to guess what the original meaning might have been. Useless.

  12. I've tried Enso sometime ago. The idea seems interesting, but two things annoy me:

    - You cannot change the hotkey to something other than CAPS LOCK.

    - You have to hold the hotkey while typing -- ok, this is configurable, but it's the suggested behavior, and it's just awkward. And when they tried to convince me (through some discussable usability article) that something that so clearly hinders my typing is actually good, I gave up.

    There's a reason why CAPS LOCK is so widely used, it's because people don't want to be holding the SHIFT key while typing. Now these guys come and make you hold CAPS LOCK while typing. Oh, geez!

  13. Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    @gus.emc: If you do not like using the Caps Lock key, than you can change it. You can also make Enso sticky if you like. Finally, there is an "upper case" command for replacing the Caps Lock functionality.

    @ionut: The beta products are free and do not require Enso Launcher or Words. So you can use them for as long as you like, and always for free.

    @Everyone else: I wanted to let you know that we just released another beta product, Enso Map Anywhere that gives you the power of Google Maps anywhere. So, for instance, I can select my favorite breakfast place in Chicago and map it.

    Tre Kronor, Chicago
    [Image would go here if it could be pasted.]
    Tre Kronor: 3258 W Foster Ave, Chicago, IL - (773) 267-9888