EnvPane - An OS X preference pane for environment variables

Submitted by Hannes Schmidt on Thu, 01/03/2013 - 00:52.

EnvPane is a preference pane for Mac OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion) that lets you set environment variables for all programs in both graphical and terminal sessions. Not only does it restore support for ~/.MacOSX/environment.plist in Mountain Lion, it also publishes your changes to the environment immediately, without the need to log out and back in. This works even for changes made by manually editing ~/.MacOSX/environment.plist, not just changes made via the preference pane.

Download

For convenience, the pre-built and code-signed binary of EnvPane can be downloaded from my blog Diary Products. Alternatively you might want to grab the source and build it yourself.

Background

Mac OS X releases prior to Mountain Lion (10.8) included support for ~/.MacOSX/environment.plist, a file that contained session-global, per-user environment variables. Starting with Mountain Lion, support of this well documented and popular mechanism was dropped without an official announcement or explanation by Apple. It may have been in response to the Flashback trojan which used that file to inject itself into every process, but this is a wild guess, especially considering that there is a relatively easy workaround, as demonstrated by the existence of this utility.

EnvPane includes (and automatically installs) a launchd agent that runs 1) early after login and 2) whenever the ~/.MacOSX/environment.plist changes. The agent reads ~/.MacOSX/environment.plist and exports the environment variables from that file to the current user's launchd instance via the same API that is used by launchctl setenv and launchctl unsetenv.

TODO: Mention RCEnvironment

TODO: Mention /etc/launchd.conf and ~/.launchd.conf

Requirements

Mac OS X 10.8, Mountain Lion or higher.

Installation

  1. Download the binary package
  2. Double-click EnvPane.pref-pane file
  3. Choose Install for this user only

Do not use the Install for all users option. See the FAQ.

Usage

When you open the Environment Variables preference pane, you will see a simple two-column table that lists the environment variables from your ~/.MacOSX/environment.plist. If that file doesn't exist, the table will be empty but the file will be created as soon as you you add an entry to the table. To add an environment variable by clicking the + button. Specifying the name the new variable, hit TAB and specify the value. Hit Enter. To modify a variable, double-click its name or value. Make the desired changes and hit Enter. To delete an environment variable,

Changes are effective immediately in all subsequently launched applications. There is no need to reboot or log out and back in. Running applications will not be affected . You need to quit and relaunch the application, in order for your changes to take effect.

Uninstallation

  1. Open System Preferences
  2. Right click Environment Variables
  3. Select Remove Environment Variables Preference Pane

The uninstallation should be clean. I went to great lengths in ensuring that removing the preference pane doesn't leave orphaned files on the system. The ~/.MacOSX/environment.plist will not be removed.

Changelog

v0.3

Fix: Preference pane fails to load if ~/Library/LaunchAgents is missing (issue #2)

v0.2

Fix: Preference pane fails to load if ~/.MacOSX or ~/.MacOSX/environment.plist are missing (issue #1).

v0.1.1

Improved documentation.

v0.1

Initial release.

Building from source

Requirements

  • Mac OS X 10.8, Mountain Lion
  • Xcode 4.5.x (I use 4.5.2)
  • A copy of Apple's launchd source tree, available on Apple Open Source under the Apache License 2.0. The current version of EnvPane was compiled against launchd-442.26.2
  • David Parsons' Discount C library by for processing John Gruber's Markdown. Install the library as described on the project page. Using the default installation prefix of /usr/local is recommended. The current version of EnvPane was compiled against version 2.1.5a of the library.

Build

  1. Clone the EnvPane repository on Github
  2. Open the Xcode project
  3. At the project level, adjust the launchd_source_dir custom build setting to point to the copy of the launchd source tree
  4. Build the project

FAQ

Why can't I install the preference pane for all users?

There are two reasons. The first one is a technicality: the environment variables configured via the preference pane are actually set by a launchd agent contained in the bundle. The agent uses launchd's WatchPath mechanism in order to be notified when the user's ~/.MacOSX/environment.plist changes. Unfortunately, there is no way to specify a WatchPath that is relative to the user's home directory. By installing the EnvPane preference pane for individual users, each instance can use a separate copy of the agent configuration in ~/Library/LaunchAgents as opposed to globally in /Library/LaunchAgents.
The second reason is that cleanly uninstalling the agent would be more complex for a preference pane that was installed globally for all users. Apple is eagerly deprecating privilege escalation mechanism left and right, leaving the half-baked SMJobBless and the rudimentary authopen. I'm not saying it couldn't be done, I'm just not convinced it'd be worth the effort.

Why aren't running applications affected?

Say, you have a shell session running in the Terminal application. You might wonder why changes to the environment made with EnvPane don't show up in the shell's environment. The answer to this question lies in Unix' process model. When a process is forked, it inherits a copy of the environment from its parent process. The copy is independent, so changes in the parent aren't visible in the child and vice versa. Doing anything else would undoubtedly fling open Pandora's box of concurrency.

Applications launched via Finder are in fact forked by the per-user instance of launchd, and thus inherit their environment from it. EnvPane uses launchd's API to modify the environment of the user's launchd instance which will then pass a copy of its modified environment to subsequently launched applications. The environment of running applications has already been copied and will not be affected.

For applications other than Terminal the only workaround is to restart the application. In Terminal, you can update the shell's environment by running

eval `launchctl export`

This will update the shell's environment, not Terminal's. Terminal's environment is still unchanged and will be passed on to each new shell window or tab. This means you will have to run the above command in each subsequently opened Terminal tab or window. Ultimately it might be better to just restart Terminal.

License

Copyright 2012 Hannes Schmidt

Licensed under the Apache License, Version 2.0 (the "License"); 
you may not use this file except in compliance with the License. 
You may obtain a copy of the License at 

http://www.apache.org/licenses/LICENSE-2.0

Unless required by applicable law or agreed to in writing, software 
distributed under the License is distributed on an "AS IS" BASIS, 
WITHOUT WARRANTIES OR CONDITIONS OF ANY KIND, either express or implied.  
See the License for the specific language governing permissions and
limitations under the License.

Copyright Notices

Green Leaf icon by Bruno Maia

Copyright 2008 IconTexto
http://www.icontexto.com
Released under CC License Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

Launchd by Apple Computer, Inc.

Copyright (c) 2005 Apple Computer, Inc. All rights reserved.

Discount by David Loren Parsons

This product includes software developed by
David Loren Parsons <http://www.pell.portland.or.us/~orc>

( categories: Mac OS X )
Submitted by Hannes Schmidt on Fri, 03/21/2014 - 18:21.
Sorry, this currently not supported. It would be possible by having EnvPane's agent perform substitutions similar to that of a shell but that would require additional coding work. Also note that at the time the agent is run, PATH has a well-known standard value set by launchd so there is not much utility in trying to factor that out. -- Hannes
Submitted by Anonymous on Fri, 01/31/2014 - 08:56.
Is it possible to define variables using evaluations of other variables, i.e. similar to bash:
  • FOO=/usr/local/foo
  • BAR=$FOO/bar
? I'm primarily interested in extending existing definitions, e.g. PATH.
Submitted by Hannes Schmidt on Sun, 09/01/2013 - 16:24.
It could be that it's installed both for all users and for current user. Try uninstalling it (may have to do it twice) and then reinstalling it. To uninstall a preference pane you right click it and select "Remove ...", but you probably know that already. Also, before reinstalling, check ~/Library/PreferencePanes, /Library/PreferencePanes and /System/Library/PreferencePanes for any remnants of EnvPane. If None of that works, file a bug on with as much info as possible (logs, directory listings, ...).
Submitted by Anonymous on Tue, 08/27/2013 - 12:25.
I installed the prefPane for current user only but after clicking at it in System Preferences, it warns that it's installed for all users and refuses to run. I double checked and the file is in ~/Library/PreferencePanes. Any idea why? This is on a 10.8.3 iMac. Thanks.
Submitted by Anonymous on Thu, 04/18/2013 - 08:33.
It does work. It is easy. It is very generous of you. That was a time saver. Thanks Hannes !
Submitted by Anonymous on Mon, 03/04/2013 - 15:15.
Thank you. Nice work and much appreciated.
Submitted by Anonymous on Wed, 02/27/2013 - 18:33.
I was pulling my hair out trying to get the necessary environment variable set for use with a third party GUI application under OSX Mountain Lion (10.8.2). After spending half a day tracking down the intricacies and differences of Mountain Lion vs. earlier versions, I thought I could cobble together an ugly solution. EnvPane saves me from having to do that, and has a much more intuitive interface. Thanks for releasing this! - Greg Marquez