How to Launch GUI Applications from the Terminal

Feb 1, 2007 - 27 Comments

terminal We all know how to launch applications from the GUI with a double-click on the icon or clicking on the app in the Dock, and there are numerous ways to do so, and they’re all relatively speedy. If you spend a decent amount of time with the command line though, it’s nice to be able to launch Mac apps directly from there as well. Also, the Terminal has a fair share of applications that run in text based mode, but maybe you wanted to edit a text file in the OS X GUI app TextWrangler rather than the text based nano or vim.

We’re going to demonstrate how to launch any graphical Mac app from the command line of OS X, including how to open specific files from the command line with a GUI app, and how to edit and open those files with root access if it’s necessary.

Opening Mac OS X Applications from the Command Line

The Terminal command to launch OS X gui apps is appropriately called ‘open’ and here is how it works at it’s most simple:

open -a ApplicationName

That will open the defined app named “ApplicationName”.

But open is much more powerful than that. If you just type ‘open’ at the command prompt, you’ll return the basic help file with details on how to properly use the command with a variety of flags and syntax. While the open command exists in all versions of Mac OS X, the abilities vary somewhat depending on what version of OS X the Mac is running. Nonetheless, in modern releases this is what you’ll see:

$ open
Usage: open [-e] [-t] [-f] [-W] [-R] [-n] [-g] [-h] [-b ] [-a ] [filenames] [--args arguments]
Help: Open opens files from a shell.
By default, opens each file using the default application for that file.
If the file is in the form of a URL, the file will be opened as a URL.
-a Opens with the specified application.
-b Opens with the specified application bundle identifier.
-e Opens with TextEdit.
-t Opens with default text editor.
-f Reads input from standard input and opens with TextEdit.
-F --fresh Launches the app fresh, that is, without restoring windows. Saved persistent state is lost, excluding Untitled documents.
-R, --reveal Selects in the Finder instead of opening.
-W, --wait-apps Blocks until the used applications are closed (even if they were already running).
--args All remaining arguments are passed in argv to the application's main() function instead of opened.
-n, --new Open a new instance of the application even if one is already running.
-j, --hide Launches the app hidden.
-g, --background Does not bring the application to the foreground.
-h, --header Searches header file locations for headers matching the given filenames, and opens them.

In other words, example simple command syntax could look like the following, opening “ApplicationName” with the file located at the path ‘/file/to/open’:

open -a ApplicationName /file/to/open

You’ll note you don’t need the full path to the application name, but you would need the full path to a file name.

The usage is likely self explanatory to those who have experience in the command line environment, but for those who are new to the Terminal, don’t be too confused, it is easy to use and we’ll explain. For example, if you want to edit /etc/motd with TextWrangler to change your Message of the Day, but you hate the command line editors nano and vi, here is what you’d type:

$ open -a TextWrangler /etc/motd

Now you can edit these files in the familiar GUI. open is smart enough to know that when you apply the -a flag, you are launching an application so you don’t need to type in its full path. Obviously, it’ll still need the full path to the file you’re editing though.

There are many other usages for the open command rather than just editing text files, so use your imagination and get creative. open could be particularly useful to system administrators who utilize it in a shell script, perhaps to launch a specific GUI application at a scheduled time.

Also worth noting is that if you are launching an application with spaces in its name, you’ll want to add a backslash after each word, opening Adobe Photoshop CS would look like this:

$ open -a Adobe\ Photoshop\ CS

Launching GUI Apps as root from the Command Line

You can even open files with sudo by using the open command if you need to edit a file as root, for example:

sudo open -a TextEdit /tmp/magicfile

This will launch the target file into the desired application as root user, giving full root privileges to edit and modify the file, which is quite helpful for editing many system files. Of course, don’t modify any system file if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Creating Shell Aliases for Frequently Launched GUI Apps

So it’s kind of a pain in the butt to type a full command repeatedly, or to type out all that out over and over again, right? Well let’s make it easier by assigning an alias to an application that gets frequently launched. We’ll take the aforementioned Adobe Photoshop app as an example since the file name is lengthy, so here’s how we’ll do this with the Mac OS X default Bash shell:

First launch the profile or .bash_profile into a text editor:

$ nano .profile


$ open -e .profile

Ignoring whatever else may be in this file (it could be empty also), add the following to a new line:

alias photoshop="open -a Adobe\ Photoshop\ CS"

This creates an alias, so that the “open -a Adobe\ Photoshop CS” command is now shortened to simply ‘photoshop’. Save .profile, and you’re on your way! You can use the alias command in conjunction with open for virtually anything, just be sure to pick an alias to a command that doesn’t already exist.

The open command is really handy as you can see, if you have any other great uses for it in OS X, be sure to let us know in the comments.

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Command Line, How to, Mac OS X, Tips & Tricks


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  1. Rich Siegel says:

    For TextWrangler, just use the “edit” command – if you’ve opted to install the command-line tools, “man edit” will tell you all you need to know. (For BBEdit, it’s “man bbedit”.)

    You can also compare from the command line: “twdiff” and “bbdiff”, respectively.

  2. xmanoel says:

    Woah! Great that finally ‘open’ made it.

    I am a huge fan from my very start in OS X. I am a huge fan of command line (and quite able with *NIX environments).

    And already on my very first days I discovered the (venerable) ‘open’ program. And It makes my day.

    I have several ‘alias’ for opening my favourite applications from the command line….
    But it is also very handy to just simply open whatever document with the asociated application:

    > open *.jpg

    I just love it.

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  4. Bill Thompson says:

    i’m not clear on the destination directory to which .profile should be Saved in the ‘open’ example (the file wasn’t present on my Tiger box.)
    would love to leverage this (& recognize I’m revealing my *nix noob status) but that bit seems important.

  5. dm_spire says:

    The .profile file goes in your home directory, on OS X that would be

  6. […] I was trying the other day to figure out how on earth I could launch some log files using Java. I could easily find the relevant information on Google about Windows but there wasn’t any article saying how to achieve this on Mac OS. So after a lot of search I realized that this could be done using Terminal commands. If you are not familiar with the “Mac DOS” take a look here to understand Terminal in a nutshell. Here is an example about how to launch a log file with TextEdit: […]



  8. zahadum says:

    you really need to be more precise about the context of the ‘open’ command vis a vis the (bash) shell …

    what are the prerequisites & dependencies that must already be setup in order – for instance – to run the ‘open’ command from the osx installer dvd?!

    i have created a custom boot disk that adds an extra folder of diagnostic utilities to help troubleshooting … but none of those apps will run even when my local path already is located at the (new) special utility folder (ls sees the contents of the directory just fine).

    i suspect that apple’s path info (on the bootable dvd) is locked down, so osx can not even see the ‘open’ command (because it is not part of the bsd userland that is loaded from the boot dvd) — if this is true, then i suppose it is just a matter of editing some config files (on the disk image) before burning another custom installer, correct?

    If so, then it would be useful for you to articulate a flight-check/checklist of which files must be setup in what way in order to allow a given functionality under what circumstances!

    obviously, my specific example is the one i am most interested in :-)


    ps: it should be noted that the reason i am want to launch specific apps /from the installer disc/ is precisely because i do not wish to complete the only type of installation that is available to me (in this case, unfortunately, a fresh install, which will wipe my current partition) … i have not backed it up yet (long story) but i want the chance now to dump everything on the NAS – alas, firewire target mode is not available because that port seems dead on my Mini :-(

    i dont know exactly what app will allow me to backup to the NAS (carbon copy cloner, disk utility, etc), but no matter which one i will need to use, i know i will need to use the ‘open’ command from a bash shell that has a default restriction on how much of the global path is visible to the bootable installer dvd!

    i am sure i am not the only person who will be ever caught with a blown-up partition on a machine that cant use firewire target mode – so some clarification about the prereqs in the path environment variables would be super appreciated!

  9. zahadum says:

    dude –

    a search by Pacifist (of the base.pkg and the bsd.pkg) on the osx leopard retail installer dvd turns up NO RESULT for a command named “open”!

    are you sure that this command was available even in tiger?!

  10. singhh says:

    anyone know how I can do adobe updates through the command line.? I want to send unix commands with ARD to adobe updater to install the updates.

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  14. xxandra says:

    so how do i open a folder in the terminal to have it open as a gui folder? (not cd command – that just opens it in the terminal itself)

    for instance can i say
    open /etc? and have the gui window pop up?

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  20. sofia says:

    Thanks to you, I can now open my files in Preview using the command line. Now I need to “Save as” in Preview using the command line. Does anyone know how to do it?

    • Matt says:

      Try this for a “Save As” replacement in OS X Lion

      • sofia says:

        Hi Matt
        Thanks for your reply. but I need to “save as” or “export” from the command line.
        I need to convert more than hundred images from .pdf to bmp and to eps and I want to do it in a script. For that, I would like to open these files in Preview and save them in the new format, everything from the command line. Is it possible to “save as” in Preview from the command line?

  21. Lance says:

    How do I also pass command line switches to the app? I’m trying to open VLC with the -v –color switches. (I saw them on the VLC wiki, maybe these are windows only options but the wiki doesn’t specify that.)

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