How to Launch GUI Applications from the Terminal

Feb 1, 2007 - 31 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 Mac 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 MacOS 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 MacOS 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 MacOS / Mac 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 Mac OS X, be sure to let us know in the comments.


Related articles:

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


» Comments RSS Feed

  1. Alan says:

    Thanks for this article – as a Late 2012 Mac Mini user, I have struggled to figure out how to configure X-Plane11 to run real time. I ran the benchmark:
    open -a –args –fps_test=1 –load_smo=Output/replays/test_flight_c4.fdr –pref:_is_ful_ALL=1 –pref:_x_res_full_ALL=1280 –pref:_y_res_full_ALL=720 –pref:_bpp_full_ALL=32
    and got:
    FRAMERATE TEST: time=93.5, frames=2162, fps=23.12
    GPU LOAD: time=93.5, wait=5.7, load=6.1%

    so I knew if I made my X-Plane settings 1280×720 windowed, I could get real-time performance, and it works!


  2. Gab says:

    How do I write it so that it opens a file, but not a specific file, one that a program could choose?

  3. There is another way of dealing with spaces in this case.

    Instead of:
    open -a Adobe\ Photoshop\ CS

    You could use:
    open -a ‘Adobe Photoshop CS’

    So, the alias for this would be:
    alias photoshop=”open -a ‘Adobe Photoshop CS’ ”

    Also, notice the space in the end of the alias (after the CS’ part). It allows you to do more with the command. Example:

    Let’s say we got an alias for Chrome. It looks like this:
    alias chrome=”open -a ‘Google Chrome'”

    In the terminal you want to open a text file with Chrome. Let’s say it’s called ”mydocument.txt”. You will try this in the Terminal:

    chrome mydocument.txt

    Which will return an error like this:
    Unable to find application named ‘Google Chromemydocument.txt”

    Using the alias here is the same as:

    open -a ‘Google Chrome’mydocument.txt

    So, instead of this we put a space in the alias:
    Alias before: alias chrome=”open -a ‘Google Chrome'”
    Alias after: alias chrome=”open -a ‘Google Chrome’ ”

    Now, when using this space and open a file with the application Alias is equal to:

    open -a ‘Google Chrome’ mydocument.txt

    The result is that Chrome will open the file mydocument.txt in the browser. Of course, the application itself should be able to display the file.

    The same can be used for commands like:
    Allowing you to enable sudo on aliases.
    So, the alias for sudo would be like this:
    alias sudo=”sudo ”

    In that way, you can use (just a example, there is almost no reason at all for this in real world use for Google Chrome):
    sudo chrome

    To break it down:
    -> open -a
    As described in the article, the command that will ”Open with the specified application”.

    -> ‘Google Chrome’
    The exact name of the application as displayed in the Finder without the .app extension.

    -> mydocument.txt
    The path to the file that will open. In this example, the file is located in the same working directory. But if i was to open a file located in the folder ”Text files from Chanderton” at the Desktop. it would look like this if i was to drag and drop the file in the Terminal after the alias name:

    chrome /Users/YourUserName/Desktop/Text\ Files\ from\ Chanderton/mydocument.txt

    or not using the application Alias:

    open -a ‘Google Chrome’ /Users/YourUserName/Desktop/Text\ Files\ from\ Chanderton/mydocument.txt

    For the ones that like things to be over the top. You can create the alias like this:
    alias chrome=”say ‘Starting Chrome’ | open -a ‘Google Chrome’ ”

    alias chrome=”echo ‘🗣 Starting Chrome 👀 ‘; wait | say ‘Starting Chrome’; wait | echo ‘👍 Yeah!’; open -a ‘Google Chrome’ “

  4. […] X with root privileges, but it’s not just a matter of prepending sudo to the otherwise useful open command, because ‘open’ launches apps as the original user, with or without sudo. The solution […]

  5. 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.)

  6. 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?

  7. […] command line users, use the “open” command to pass wildcards to ImageOptim for easy scripting and bulk image compression like […]

  8. […] your hard disk name for this walkthrough. Now here’s the interesting part, typically you can launch applications from the Terminal with the ‘open’ command, but the Lion Recovery drives have a stripped down set of […]

  9. […] Line, Mac OS X, Tips & Tricks – July 18th, 2011 – Leave a Comment Using the command line open tool, you can immediately launch any URL from the Terminal into the default web browser. The syntax […]

  10. […] tells the command to only open the file if the header was successfully downloaded. Using ‘open‘ will open httpheader.txt in the default GUI text editor, which is generally Text Edit, but […]

  11. […] application in Mac OS X with a little command line magic. Using the ‘open’ command to launch GUI apps from the Terminal, we can run a new instance of any app, even if it is already […]

  12. 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?

  13. […] osxdaily David Miller O’reilly wiki bash ss64 This entry was posted in bash, osx, terminal. Bookmark […]

  14. […] How to Launch GUI Applications from the Terminal – OS X Daily (tags: alias command bsd howto macosx terminal tip open apple launch opensource unix tips osx shell macos applications application commandline macintosh mac from gui article os guide) […]

  15. […] Come lanciare le applicazioni di Mac OS X dalla linea di comando (Terminale) How to Launch GUI Applications from the Terminal – OS X Daily. […]

  16. 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.

  17. 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?!

  18. 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!



  20. […] 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: […]

  21. dm_spire says:

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

  22. 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.

  23. […] Simply, you fire up an SSH terminal (I used PuTTY) and start typing poking around. But already had part of the answer: using Apple Remote Desktop’s kickstart command to directly issue commands to a GUI app from the terminal. Cool! So I ran kickstart with the –help parameter, and a nice and long man page comes up… In this case, I decided to stop and deactivate Remote Desktop (for subsequent reboots) by using the following command: […]

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

Leave a Reply


Shop on and help support OSXDaily!

Subscribe to OSXDaily

Subscribe to RSS Subscribe to Twitter Feed Follow on Facebook Subscribe to eMail Updates

Tips & Tricks


iPhone / iPad



Shop on Amazon to help support this site