New LaunchBar proves Apple hasn’t killed app launchers yet



App launchers on the Mac have always been geared toward power users, and lately tools like Alfred have become even more sophisticated, with user-created scripts and extensions. When Apple debuted the new Spotlight in OS X Yosemite at WWDC, it took many of the best features from existing launchers, like the ability to find any app you have installed with a couple keystrokes.

LaunchBar was the original app launcher on the Mac, and today a brand new version was released with a themable interface and new features.

Will tools like LaunchBar and Alfred live on when millions of Mac owners start using the new Spotlight this fall? Now that Apple has capitalized on the more consumer-friendly aspects of what makes a good launcher, third-party alternatives are going after power users like never before.

Using LaunchBar to do a web search with DuckDuckGo
Using LaunchBar to do a web search with DuckDuckGo

LaunchBar is one of the oldest Mac apps, period. It began as a series of shell scripts on the NeXTSTEP platform before getting ported to Mac OS X in 2001. Made by Objective Development, LaunchBar actually existed before Spotlight. Apple took over LaunchBar’s position at the top right of the menubar with the introduction Spotlight in 2005. In response, LaunchBar became a small window that could be summoned from the center of the screen.


With today’s release of LaunchBar 6, the app’s interface is getting its first visual overhaul in years. The new, themeable interface finally puts it on par with Alfred aesthetically, which has become the most popular app launcher of choice in recent years. There’s also Quicksilver as another launcher alternative, but development of that tool has been quite stagnant for some time.

Workflows is where many people who just want a tool to launch apps or open documents will get lost

Like Alfred, you can now create custom workflows in LaunchBar for interfacing with files and settings on your Mac. For example, you can convert any of the links you have open in Safari into a shortened link that is copied to your clipboard. Workflows is where many people who just want a tool to launch apps or open documents will get lost.

In the new LaunchBar, users can download workflows (called “actions”) from third-party devs, which Alfred already has a vibrant community build around, or script their own using AppleScript, JavaScript, Ruby, Python, PHP, and more. It’s a geeky, automated lifestyle that requires a lot of setting up to get right, but can save quite a bit of time getting work done in the long run.

Alfred for Mac
Alfred for Mac

After Apple showed off the new Spotlight in Yosemite at WWDC, the team behind Alfred attempted to ease peoples’ fears of the third-party app launcher category fading into obscurity.

“What you have to remember is that Spotlight’s primary objective is to search your files and a small handful of pre-determined web sources,” said Alfred’s developers in a blog post. “Meanwhile, Alfred’s primary objective is to make you more productive on your Mac with exceptional and powerful features like Clipboard History, System commands, iTunes Mini Player, 1Password bookmarks, Terminal integration, fully bespoke and customisable user-created workflows and much, much more.”

LaunchBar’s biggest weakness over Alfred is that it doesn’t have support for global keyboard shortcuts. With Alfred, you can assign a shortcut that works anywhere to perform an action, but with LaunchBar you’ll need a third-party tool like Keyboard Maestro.

Indexing Rules

Other additions in the new LaunchBar include the ability to edit Finder Tags, give detailed usage reports, add Reminders, access Safari’s Reading List, and browse iCloud Tabs. Version 6 is Mavericks-only and costs $19 for existing users or $29 for a new license. The app itself is a free download, but you’ll be limited with how much you can use it until you pay.

There’s a lot that LaunchBar 6 can do beyond what is mentioned here, so be sure to check out Objective Development’s website if you’re interested.

“We see the development and improvements of Spotlight as a positive sign, because Apple is paving the way for average users to try using application launchers at all,” said Objective Development’s Manfred Linzer to Cult of Mac. “If they [users] are more used to the concept of launchers, they might reach out to the more powerful ones available from third-party developers.”

It’s clear that, thanks largely to power users on the Mac, third-party app launchers aren’t going anywhere soon.

(And for more on the history of LaunchBar and app launchers in general, check out Shawn Blanc’s excellent write-up.)