In the first update since November 2017, Apple today released version 1.7.8 of Workflow, the powerful iOS automation app they acquired last year. The latest version, which is now available on the App Store, introduces a brand new Mask Image action, adds support for Things' automation features, and improves the ability to extract text from PDFs using the company's PDFKit framework, launched in iOS 11. While the unassuming version number may suggest a relatively minor update, Workflow 1.7.8 actually comes with a variety of noteworthy changes for heavy users of the app.
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One of the Todoist features I miss the most as a Things user is the service's natural language parser. Available in the Quick Add field of Todoist for iOS, web, and macOS, this feature is, effectively, Fantastical for tasks. Instead of having to manually select task fields such as projects, tags, or dates, you can take advantage of an easy-to-remember syntax and quickly type them out. As you do that, Todoist will highlight the parts it understands in red, indicating that it knows how to parse them. I entered hundreds of tasks in Todoist using this system, and I think it's an aspect of task creation that every other task manager should implement as well. It makes perfect sense, and it saves a lot of time.
Aside from a half-baked attempt at supporting natural language entry in its date assignment UI, Things doesn't unfortunately offer a quick entry feature comparable to Todoist's. So, of course, I set out to make my own using the app's latest automation features.
Well, kind of. For starters, as much as I'd love to, automation doesn't mean I can make my own interfaces in Things, supplementing the app with my custom UI to more easily create tasks. Things' new URL scheme only lets us send data from other apps such as Workflow or Drafts. More importantly though, the workflow I'm sharing today isn't based on a complex natural language engine such as the one used by Todoist or, say, the Chrono JS parser; I'm just using some special characters sprinkled with some delicious regex to make sure Workflow knows what constitutes a task title, a project, or a due date. Thus the quoted "natural language" in the headline of this story: it's only natural as long as you don't forego the special syntax required to make the workflow run.
That said, I'm quite happy with how this workflow lets me add multiple tasks to Things at once. I've been finding it especially useful at the end of the work day or during my weekly review, when I make a list of all the things I'm supposed to do next and want an easy way to add them all to Things. For this reason, rather than restricting this workflow to Club MacStories members, I thought every MacStories reader could benefit from it and modify it to their needs.
If you're a Club member, you can still look forward to advanced Things workflows over the next few issues of MacStories Weekly; this one, however, has been too useful for me not to share with everyone.
In the first update following Apple's acquisition in late March – and despite rumors that claimed the app would no longer be supported – Workflow has today restored some of the features that were removed in version 1.7.3 of the app (which was released when Apple confirmed the acquisition) and has brought a variety of changes and improvements, including new Apple Music actions.
I've loved Workflow since the first beta I was sent in August 2014. Workflow is my most-used iOS app of all time, and, in many ways, it is the reason my iPad Pro can be my primary computer. I've written thousands of words on the app and have created hundreds of workflows for myself and others over the course of two years.
I referred to Workflow as Minecraft for iOS productivity and the modern bicycle for the mind in the past. I stand by those analogies. There's nothing else on iOS like Workflow, which deftly walked the fine line between absurd innovation and Apple rejections with a bold vision and technical prowess. Workflow embraced the limitations of iOS and turned them into strengths, resulting in a power-user app with no competition. After two years, no app gets remotely close to the automation features shipped by the Workflow team.
And now Workflow and its creators are going to be part of Apple and the company's bigger (and more secretive) plans.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had always kept the possibility that Workflow could eventually be discontinued or acquired. In a somewhat prescient move, Stephen quizzed me on this problem a few weeks ago on Connected. My "worst-case scenario" of Workflow going away became the new reality of iOS automation last week.
Workflow as an app is an incredibly good acquisition for Apple, but there's a deeper subtext here. Workflow represents a movement from a large number of users who enjoy working from iOS devices so much, they want to optimize the experience as much as possible. Workflow's goal wasn't to merely provide a capable alternative to the Mac's AppleScript and Automator; Workflow wanted to eclipse legacy scripting environments and usher iOS users into a new era of mobile automation. There's the Workflow app and team – technically impressive and absolutely talented – and there's the bigger theme behind Workflow.
But what has Apple acquired, exactly? Under Apple's control, can Workflow continue on its mission to make automation accessible for everyone? If Apple sees a future in iOS automation powered by Workflow, what else can be done with a virtually infinite budget and stronger ties to the platform? And what does this acquisition mean for Apple's commitment to pro users on iOS?
I've been mulling over these questions for the past week. I don't have any absolute answers at this point, but, after building workflows and following the app's development for two years, I have some ideas on where Workflow can go next.
Below, you'll find two possible scenarios for Workflow as an Apple app, as well as some considerations on how Apple could evolve Workflow into a native feature of iOS devices and a new developer platform.
Matthew Panzarino, reporting for TechCrunch:
Apple has finalized a deal to acquire Workflow today — a tool that lets you hook together apps and functions within apps in strings of commands to automate tasks. We’ve been tracking this one for a while but were able to confirm just now that the ink on the deal is drying as we speak.
Apple confirmed the deal, and has said the following about Workflow:
“The Workflow app was selected for an Apple Design Award in 2015 because of its outstanding use of iOS accessibility features, in particular an outstanding implementation for VoiceOver with clearly labeled items, thoughtful hints, and drag/drop announcements, making the app usable and quickly accessible to those who are blind or low-vision.”
According to Panzarino, Workflow's Ari Weinstein, Conrad Kramer, Nick Frey, and Ayaka Nonaka are joining Apple; the Workflow app will continue to be available on the App Store, and it'll become a free download later today.
Workflow doesn't need an introduction on this website. I've been covering the app since its debut in 2014, and have been following every update until the last major version, which brought the fantastic addition of Magic Variables. You can catch up on over two years of Workflow reporting and tutorials here, and access even more advanced workflows in our dedicated section on the Club MacStories newsletter.
At this stage, it's not clear what Apple's plans for Workflow in the long term might be. I have a few theories, but this isn't the time to speculate. I'll say this, though: Workflow has been the driving force behind my decision to embrace the iPad as my primary computer. Workflow is a shining example of the power of automation combined with user creativity and its underlying mission has always been clear: to allow anyone to improve how iOS can get things done for them in a better, faster, more flexible way. Workflow is the modern bicycle for the mind. There's nothing else like it.
I want to personally congratulate the Workflow team for building a beautiful product that has enabled thousands of people to be more productive from iOS every day. I hope that Apple will continue to believe in the vision behind Workflow's automation. If Apple takes Workflow seriously, its automation – now deeply integrated with iOS and private APIs – could fundamentally reinvent iOS for power users, especially on the iPad.
It's an exciting time for iOS productivity and automation. I can't wait to see what Apple's newfound interest in automation is going to produce.
In a seemingly minor 1.7.2 update released over the weekend, the Workflow team brought a few notable file-based changes to the app.
Workflow's existing support for cloud storage services has been expanded and all file actions have been unified under a single 'Files' category. You can now choose files from iCloud Drive, Dropbox, or Box within the same action UI, and there are also updated actions to create folders, delete files, and get links to files. Now you don't have to switch between different actions for iCloud Drive and Dropbox – there's only one type of File action, and you simply pick a service.
Interestingly, this means that Workflow can now generate shareable links for iCloud Drive files too; here's an example of a workflow to choose a file from the iCloud Drive document provider and copy its public link to the clipboard. (Under the hood, Workflow appears to be using the Mail Drop APIs for uploads. These links aren't pretty, but they work.)
There's also a noteworthy change for Ulysses users. Workflow now allows you to easily extract details from Ulysses sheets using their ID. After giving Workflow permission to access your Ulysses library (which, unfortunately, still has to be done using a glorified x-callback-url method), you'll be able to chain Workflow and Ulysses to, say, get the Markdown contents of a document, extract its notes, or copy its title to the clipboard. The new 'Get Ulysses Sheet-Get Details of Ulysses Sheet' combo makes Ulysses automation much easier and faster.
If you work with files in Workflow on a daily basis, and especially if you're an iCloud Drive user, you'll want to check out the new actions and rethink some of your existing workflows. You can get the latest version of Workflow here.
Following the release of Workflow 1.7 earlier this month, the Workflow team is debuting a set of tweaks and additions this week that further simplify the creation and management of workflows for both beginners and advanced users.