Criticism of the Inadequate Clipboard, or: An Ode to Clipboard Managers

Apple calls Mac OS X Lion “the world’s most advanced desktop operating system,” and it’s probably true. Files are automatically saved and versioned. With the Mac App Store, app installation is easier than ever. Backup is built-in. You can even sign PDFs with a webcam.

And yet if you copy a selection of text, and then copy another, the first one will be gone, irretrievable and unrecoverable. The same is true in Windows, Linux, iOS, and as far as I know, every other modern operating system. Despite the incredible progress computer operating systems have made over the years, the clipboard — a fundamental and paradigm-shifting digital innovation — remains almost unchanged, beyond being able to hold more than just text. After years of operating system upgrades, the default clipboard remains as limited as an Etch A Sketch, one that’s automatically shaken every time the user clicks “Copy.”

The fact that the clipboard can only hold one selection at a time is an entirely unnecessary and arbitrary constraint. You can say it’s remained this way for the sake of simplicity, but it’s far from efficient when you copy something only to realize you’ve overwritten something else important (especially with websites that automatically copy links to the clipboard). That’s not a good user experience, and simplicity should contribute to UX, not detract from it.

The frustration of the clipboard is magnified on iOS, where copying and pasting more than a few pieces of text between apps is excruciating.

That neither Apple nor Microsoft have improved the clipboard functionality of their respective operating systems, especially considering the plethora of clipboard managers attesting to demand, is mind-boggling. Any serious computer user should install a tool to enhance their clipboard, and especially those involved in writing and content production.

There are plenty of options available. Application launchers like Alfred, LaunchBar, and Quicksilver all contain clipboard histories, and there are also dedicated apps like Jumpcut, Corkboard, Clipboard History, ClipMenu, Clyppan, Clipboard Evolved, the overpriced CopyPaste Pro, and others (just search for “clipboard” in the Mac App Store). I use Jumpcut, which hasn’t been updated in years but continues to work as intended and serves my needs very well. There are many for Windows as well, and on iOS there’s Pastebot (although it’s not as simple and automatic as desktop clipboard managers).

What becomes possible once the single-selection limit is lifted? Here are some new uses for the clipboard that I’ve discovered (some of these can be done anyway, but not while the clipboard continues to be used):

  • Copying and pasting multiple text snippets, like a title, link, quote and author name. This is invaluable when citing sources, or when copying a title or quote and a link at the same time to post to Twitter, Facebook, or your blog.
  • Quoting multiple passages from the same source.
  • An easy backup of typed text.
  • Information from a form that has to be re-entered somewhere else.
  • Rearranging the order of two or more sentences or bits of text.
  • Keeping brief information temporarily available.
  • With some apps, like Jumpcut, pasting a rich text snippet in plain text. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
  • I mainly use the clipboard for copying text, but the possibilities are even greater with a clipboard manager that supports images and more.

If you copy and paste often — or if you’ve ever overwritten something important by copying again — you owe it to yourself to install a clipboard manager. At the very least, it’ll stay out of your way until you need it. At best, it’ll change the way you think about copying and pasting on the computer.

Read more on Being Efficient, Creativity and Creation, How I Do Things, Media, Opinion, Software, Technology, Writing.