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Shortcuts 2.2 Brings New Apple Notes Actions, Travel Time Enhancements

Shortcuts 2.2, the second major update to Apple's automation app following October's 2.1 release, has been released on the App Store today. The new version of Shortcuts, which has been available to developers for testing via TestFlight for several weeks now, brings a variety of smaller refinements and bug fixes; more importantly, it extends Shortcuts' integration with one of Apple's most popular built-in apps: Notes. Additionally, Shortcuts 2.2 builds upon the existing 'Get Travel Time' action (based on the Apple Maps framework) with new Magic Variables well suited for shortcuts that integrate with Siri.

For the past few weeks, I've been building advanced shortcuts that take advantage of the new actions for Notes and Maps, which I'm going to explain and share in this article. The new shortcuts are also available through the MacStories Shortcuts Archive, which now features a dedicated Apple Notes section as well. Let's dive in.

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Introducing the MacStories Shortcuts Archive, a Collection of 150 Custom Shortcuts for Apple’s Shortcuts App

After several months of work, I'm pleased to announce the MacStories Shortcuts Archive – the official repository for shortcuts I've created over the years (including when they used to be called "workflows") and which have been updated, tested for the Shortcuts app, and collected in a single place.

You can find the archive at macstories.net/shortcuts. In this first version, the archive contains 150 shortcuts, but more will be posted over time. Each shortcut was created and tested by me and the MacStories team; all of them have been categorized, updated for the Shortcuts app, and marked up with inline comments to explain what they do.

Even better, they're all free to download and you can modify them to suit your needs.

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iPad Diaries: Using a Mac from iOS, Part 1 – Finder Folders, Siri Shortcuts, and App Windows with Keyboard Maestro

iPad Diaries is a regular series about using the iPad as a primary computer. You can find more installments here and subscribe to the dedicated RSS feed.

After several years without updates to a product that, somewhat oddly, "remained in Apple's lineup", the Mac mini was revived by the company last November with a major redesign geared toward pro users and designed for flexibility. As listeners of Connected know, one of the show's long-running jokes was that I would buy my last Mac ever as soon as Apple released a new Mac mini1; when it happened, I took the opportunity to completely rethink my home office with a new desk, well-specced Mac mini, and 4K display that supported both modern Macs and iPad Pros via USB-C.

Effectively, I had never owned a desktop Mac until2 this Mac mini arrived. I always preferred portable Macs to workstations, and over the years I moved from a late 2008 MacBook Pro to a 2011 MacBook Air and, in 2015, back to the (now Retina) MacBook Pro again. Over the past couple of years, however, and particularly since the introduction of iOS 11, my penchant for Mac laptops started clashing with the realization that the iPad Pro had become my de-facto laptop. I was using a MacBook Pro because I thought I needed a portable Mac machine just like when I started MacStories in 2009; in reality, the iPad had been chipping away at the MacBook's core tasks for a while. Eventually, I saw how my MacBook Pro had become a computer I'd open twice a week to record podcasts, and nothing more.

With the iPad Pro as my primary computer, the Mac's role in my life evolved into a fixed environment that was necessary for multi-track audio recording and Plex Media Server. And as I shared on Connected on several occasions, I realized that my workflow in 2018 wasn't the same as 2009 anymore: it no longer made sense for me to have a Mac laptop when what I really needed was a small, but powerful and extensible Mac desktop. That's why I started waiting for a new Mac mini, and my wishes were granted with the 2018 relaunch of the mighty desktop machine.

For the past three months, I've been busy setting up the Mac mini and optimizing it for the tasks that inspired its purchase. I bought external SSD drives (these two) to use for Plex and Time Machine backups; I set up a homebridge server to add unsupported accessories to HomeKit (such as our 2017 LG TV) and turn iTunes playlists into HomeKit scenes; I rethought my podcasting setup (I now have a Zoom H6 recorder and a taller microphone stand) and arranged my desk to make it easier to use the same UltraFine 4K display with the Mac mini and iPad Pro (I just need to plug in a different USB-C cable). Because this Mac mini is fast enough to handle 4K transcoding for Plex without breaking a sweat, I started using youtube-dl to enjoy 4K YouTube videos on iOS devices with the Infuse or Plex apps. I'm trying to take advantage of a powerful, always-on Mac server in any way I can, and I'm having lots of fun doing it.

This doesn't change the fact that the iPad Pro is my main computer, and that I want to interact with macOS as little as possible. Aside from recording podcasts using Mac apps, I rely on the Mac mini as a server that performs tasks or provides media in the background. Any server requires a front-end interface to access and manage it; in my case, that meant finding apps, creating shortcuts, and setting up workflows on my iPad Pro to access, manage, and use the Mac mini from iOS without having to physically sit down in front of it.

In this multi-part series, I'm going to cover how I'm using the 2018 iPad Pro to access my Mac mini both locally and remotely, the apps I employ for file management, the custom shortcuts I set up to execute macOS commands from iOS and the HomePod, various automations I created via AppleScript and Keyboard Maestro, and more. Let's dive in.

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  1. It was funny because everybody thought the Mac mini line was done. ↩︎
  2. Many years ago, I did use an iMac for a few months. However, I never considered that machine truly mine – it was set up at my parents' house (where it now sits unused) and I worked on it for a while until I moved in with my girlfriend a few months later. ↩︎

Memento, the Third-Party Reminders Client, Adds Watch App, Keyboard Shortcuts, and More

Apple's Reminders is one of the few native iOS apps with a database that can be directly tapped into by third-party clients. Like the iOS Calendar app, which has no shortage of alternatives on the App Store, developers can create their own task managers that fully integrate with your Reminders database, offering the convenience of a built-in system with the benefit of having multiple options to choose from.

A couple months back I wrote about two of the best third-party Reminders clients on the App Store, one of which was Reminder. Today as part of its big 3.0 update, Reminder is being renamed Memento and bringing a handful of improvements that take better advantage of Apple's full device ecosystem. There's an Apple Watch app for the first time, keyboard shortcuts on iPad, 3D Touch shortcuts on compatible iPhones, custom time presets, and more.

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Google Integrates Assistant App with Siri Shortcuts on iOS

Google released an exciting update for its Assistant iOS app today, bringing support for Siri shortcuts and, for the first time, opening lines of communication between the two competing assistants.

Siri and the Google Assistant have historically been unable to work together in any way, but thanks to the opening up of Siri via shortcuts in iOS 12, that changes now. With the latest update, you can set up a shortcut in iOS to immediately, via Siri, trigger any command you'd like to give Google's Assistant.

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Shortcuts 2.1 Brings New Weather and Clock Actions, iCloud Sharing Improvements, and More

In a release that largely focuses on performance improvements and digital well-being tools to curb notification overload and smartphone addiction, Apple's Siri shortcuts initiative in iOS 12 stands out as one of the most exciting developments in modern iOS history. Perhaps even more impressive than developers' adoption of Siri shortcuts though has been the response to Apple's Shortcuts app, which enables the creation of custom shortcuts that can integrate with apps, system features, and even Siri.

In addition to a thriving community that continues to prove how combining users' imagination with automation can elevate iOS productivity, Apple itself has so far shown a remarkable commitment to the Shortcuts app by listening to the community and ensuring a smooth transition from Workflow. Traditionally, Apple's App Store apps receive major updates then linger for months before the next big set of changes; with Shortcuts, Apple has kept the TestFlight beta channel active, pushing for the same development pace that characterized Workflow before its acquisition.

The result is Shortcuts 2.1, released today on the App Store with a variety of bug fixes, iCloud improvements, and, more importantly, new actions that integrate the app even more deeply with iOS 12. If you're not familiar with the Shortcuts app, I recommending reading the dedicated section from my iOS 12 review first; if you're an existing Shortcuts user and rely on the app for key aspects of your iOS workflow, let's dig in and take a look at what's new.

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Why Shortcuts Matter for Accessibility

Since it was announced at WWDC over the summer, the lion’s share of conversation around shortcuts has been about getting things done quickly and efficiently. Apple’s marketing message focuses on how shortcuts in iOS 12 help “streamline the things you do often” using Siri and/or the Shortcuts app. The company also recently put out a press release highlighting top App Store apps that have integrated shortcuts to extend their functionality, touting them for “making [users'] favorite apps even easier to use with a simple tap or by asking Siri.”

While the convenience factor of shortcuts is appreciated, an important aspect to their utility is accessibility. It’s a crucial aspect of the story around shortcuts, because while everyone loves a time-saver or two, these workflows also have the potential to make iPhone and iPad more accessible. In an accessibility context, shortcuts can be lifesavers in terms of reducing cognitive load, excessive swiping and tapping, and other common points of friction often met by disabled users.

Shortcuts, Past and Present

Before considering shortcuts as an accessibility tool, it’s important to understand their roots in order to properly frame them into perspective. The idea that shortcuts, or workflows, can prove valuable as an assistive technology isn’t a novel one.

Workflow, on which the Shortcuts app is based, was acquired by Apple in early 2017. Two years earlier, however, Apple selected Workflow as an Apple Design Award winner primarily for its integration of iOS accessibility features. Ari Weinstein, who joined Apple to work on Shortcuts post-acquisition, told me in an interview at WWDC 2015 that he and his team received feedback from several blind and visually impaired users who were curious about Workflow and wanted to try it. As a result, the team felt adding VoiceOver support was “the right thing to do,” Weinstein said.

To paraphrase Kendrick Lamar, Shortcuts got accessibility in its DNA.

Given the history lesson, it’s not at all far-fetched to think the Shortcuts app would have appeal to disabled users. Like Overcast and Twitterrific, Shortcuts is an app built for the mainstream, yet it has the care and design sensibility to carry relevance for a variety of use cases, like being fully accessible to a blind user via VoiceOver. This isn’t small potatoes; given Apple’s commitment to the disabled community, it’s certainly plausible Workflow’s ode to accessibility made the app all the more desirable.

More Than Just Productivity

As I reported during WWDC, Apple’s focus this year, software-wise, marked a departure from how they’ve traditionally approached accessibility enhancements. Unlike past years, there were no new discrete accessibility features for any platform. (AirPods with Live Listen is close). Instead, Apple chose to hammer on the idea that the tentpole features (e.g. Group FaceTime in iOS 12, Walkie-Talkie in watchOS 5) can be enabling technologies. The overarching theme of the conference was that the new features were so well designed that they brought inherent accessibility gains.

Siri shortcuts is another of those features. In my briefings with Apple at WWDC and since, shortcuts has been one of the first items they wanted to discuss. Like Group FaceTime and others, the company firmly believes in shortcuts' potential as an accessibility aid. Their enthusiasm is warranted: for many users with certain cognitive and/or physical motor delays, the consolidation of tasks can reduce friction associated with remembering how to perform a task and then doing it. In this way, shortcuts are the inverse of task analyses; rather than extrapolating tasks into their individual parts (e.g. tapping a series of buttons in an app), the Shortcuts app's automation turns them into a single step. (You break down steps when creating your own workflows, but that’s beside the point being made here.) Lest we forget about Siri; being able to use your voice to activate shortcuts is a boon for people with motor delays, as the “hands free” experience can be empowering.

For disabled people, shortcuts’ focus on speed and accessibility can open up new possibilities in terms of what they can do with their iOS devices and how they do things. Throw in system accessibility features like VoiceOver and Dynamic Type, and the Shortcuts app becomes far more compelling than simply being a sheer productivity tool.

”We see huge accessibility potential with Siri Shortcuts and the Shortcuts app. It’s already making a difference — helping people across a wide range of assistive needs simplify every-day tasks like getting to work, coming home, or staying in touch with friends and family,” Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s Senior Director of Global Accessibility Policy & Initiatives, said in a statement. “We’re getting great feedback about how powerful the technology is in streamlining frequent tasks and integrating multiple app functions with just a single voice command or tap.”

How I Use Shortcuts

I am far less prolific in my adoption of shortcuts than some people. Others, like Federico and Matthew Cassinelli, are far more well-versed in the intricacies of what is possible and, more importantly, how you chain certain commands together.

My needs for shortcuts are pretty spartan. The shortcuts I use most often are practical, everyday ones I found in the Gallery section of the app. I currently have thirteen shortcuts; of those, the ones that are the most heavily-used are the laundry timer, tip calculator, and one for texting my girlfriend. While I have enjoyed spelunking through Federico’s work for esoteric, power user shortcuts, the reality is my work doesn’t require much automation. I typically don’t need to do fancy things with images, text, and the like. That isn’t to say these tools aren’t cool or valuable; they’re just not necessarily for me. For my needs, quick access to, say, the laundry timer is worth its weight in gold because I always forget to move my clothes.

Consider another shortcut of mine, Play an Album. I’ve been listening to Eminem’s new album, Kamikaze, virtually non-stop since it came out at the end of August. Rather than manually launch the Music app, find the album in my recently played queue, and hit play, I can utilize the Shortcuts widget to play it with a single tap. The manual method is three steps which, while not tedious for me in any way, is more work. Going back to the task analysis analogy I used earlier, not only is Play an Album faster, it particularly helps me conserve precious visual energy I otherwise would have expended finding the album. For fine-motor skills, the shortcut also saves on potential cramping in my fingers caused by my cerebral palsy. Again, what can take multiple taps can be condensed into a single motion. For many, that’s a huge win.

The same concept applies to sending iMessages to my girlfriend. Using the shortcut, what would normally be a multi-step process is reduced to a single step. The advantage for me is a matter of kinetics, but for others, the advantage very well could reduce cognitive load and increase executive function. Not insignificant.

The Bottom Line

As is the case with stuff like Markdown and Apple Pay, technologies not built expressly for accessibility’s sake, the Shortcuts app is so well considered and approachable that anyone can use it, regardless of ability. There are no complicated settings or special modes; as Apple designed it, it just works as they intended it.

That’s what makes Shortcuts’ star shine brighter. Yes, Apple is pitching it for speed and convenience. Yes, shortcuts can be as pedestrian or as nerdy as you want them to be. Above all, however, the Shortcuts app is accessible. It's an app that's reachable to the widest possible audience, turning its utilitarianism into something far greater.