How to run macros in Firefox, and why

Automating tasks becomes dead-easy with the free Firefox extension iMacros, saving you time and physical wear. Brand-new support for Delicious also makes sharing easier than ever.

iMacros logo

My editorial job requires me to spend 90 percent of most days stationed in front of my PC. Even with an ergonomic setup, my hands get achy, especially when I'm racing against the clock. I can, thankfully, eliminate some of those repetitive tasks by automating them with a macro.

Macros are essentially scripts that run through a sequence of predefined steps. Since much of my work is Web-based, iOpus' free plug-in, iMacros for Firefox, is a great time-saver that simply lets me record my mouse actions and then translates those actions into a script I can save and even share with others.

Getting familiar with iMacros

iMacros on the Firefox toolbar

Toggle the iMacros sidebar on and off from the toolbar.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

When you first install iMacros, it opens as a sidebar on the left that squashes your tabs to the right. Since it also installs a toolbar button (a blue browser window highlighted by a yellow gear), you can safely kill the sidebar and resurrect it from the toolbar any time you need.

At first glance, iMacros' interface is a mess of demos and tests. The demos are there to boost your learning curve, but only brought me speeds too fast to discern the process and sample downloads I didn't want and then had to delete. Forget 'em; you can get clearer step-by-step instructions online. I stashed the demos in a new folder, which cleared the clutter and made room for my own, far more useful, macros.

Recording a macro
My day, like many people, begins with a routine. TheHungerSite.com is just one bookmark I've set Firefox to open when it launches but when I'm done, I'm done and I move on to e-mail. This is a great time to create a macro: pressing record before clicking through the site's five tabs, then surfing to my Web mail and entering my password, pressing stop to finish.

iMacros for Firefox's recording module

The controls are simple: record, edit, and play.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

A word on passwords--iMacros gives you the option to leave passwords as they are or to encrypt them in two ways. Open passwords are insecure and visible in the script whenever you edit a macro. You can encrypt the password and shield it behind a master password by going into iMacros' Options menu (get there from Firefox's Add-Ons selection in the Tools menu.) The master password will be stored in Firefox's password manager unless you opt to reenter it each time iMacros opens.

The latter creates more hassle (and defeats the purpose of running a macro to begin with), but it is also more secure.

Making macros into bookmarks
There are as many uses for a macro as there are tasks. I gave you one above, but others are for filling out forms, for opening Web tools you always use together, and for testing Web developments; it just depends what you need to do. What matters next is how to use them. Helpfully, iMacros lets you save macro files as bookmarks for quicker launching.

There's a little process involved. Right-click the macro of choice and select Add to bookmark from the context menu. You'll see two choices. Adding the bookmark everywhere will transfer the entire macro script onto your clipboard to then paste into an e-mail, or to share on Delicious.

Saving iMacros bookmarks

Turning macros into bookmarks launches them faster.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

If it's for your own Firefox use, choose to save it locally. iMacros will drop a reference URL into the bookmark instead of the entire command line. If you'd like iMacros to consider recommending it, also tag your Delicious bookmark 'for:imacros'.

You can also index the IIM file type that iMacros uses in a quick-app launcher like Launchy, Executor, or Keybreeze and type the file name. The benefit: quick execution that won't make you depress the mouse button while you scan the list for your bookmarked macro.

Here's another neat trick: those of you who use Foxmarks to sync your Firefox bookmarks will automatically import the macro when you sync with another computer.

What iMacros for Firefox doesn't have
iMacros for Firefox can save you from the physical trauma of computing busywork, for which my fingers are thankful. Yet, I still have a wish list. I'd like to schedule macros to run when Firefox launches and at other times of the day. I'd also like macros to run in the background while I'm off in other tabs; when I tried this, my macros failed.

These tasks, plus support for Flash, Java, Silverlight, and Ajax and so many more advanced features, are available in the feature-loaded business edition that costs $500, a sum hardly any individual would buy just to automate a few tasks. It would be nice if iOpus, iMacros' publisher, released an inexpensive commercial version that also let you run the macro in the background and launch it on start-up. Regardless, we're glad to see a solid freeware add-on that makes macros possible.

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