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Posts in stories

Dispelling the Apple Services Myth

Apple is known for its quality hardware and software, but services are another story.

Cloud-based services are the future – there's no denying that. And Apple historically has struggled with its cloud offerings. From MobileMe, to the early growing pains of iCloud, to the Apple Maps fiasco, the company gained a poor reputation in the area of services.

Only in the last two years has Apple publicly touted services as a core part of its business. Company press releases as recent as May 2015 ended with the following self-definition:

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.

There's a lot that feels outdated here, including the fact that both Mac and iPod are highlighted before the iPhone. But one major way this paragraph fails to describe the Apple of today is that the word 'services' is nowhere to be found.

Amid a variety of other changes, Apple's current self-definition includes the following:

Apple’s four software platforms — iOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS — provide seamless experiences across all Apple devices and empower people with breakthrough services including the App Store, Apple Music, Apple Pay and iCloud.

Services are a key component of modern Apple. The way the company defines itself, along with the numerous services shoutouts in quarterly earnings calls, prove that.

Despite Apple's increased focus on services, the common narrative that the company "can't do services" still hangs around – in online tech circles at least.

But is that narrative still true, or has it grown outdated?

I want to share how I use Apple services in my everyday life across three important contexts of life:

  • As I work,
  • On the go, and
  • Around the house.

My aim is not to perform an in-depth comparison of Apple's cloud offerings and competing products. Though competitors and their features will come up occasionally, the focus here is on my experiences in everyday living – my experiences, not yours. I understand that just because something does or doesn't work for me, the same isn't necessarily true for you. The point of this piece is not to try proving anything; instead, I simply want to assess and share my current experiences with Apple's services.

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Introducing AppStories

In February 2010, nearly a year after I started MacStories, I registered a domain for a project I knew I wanted to launch in the future: AppStories.net.

Seven years later, AppStories finally joins the MacStories family. AppStories is the first MacStories podcast, hosted by yours truly and John Voorhees, and it's all about the world of apps. Every week, John and I will cover our favorite apps, the human stories behind the apps we love, as well as the impact of apps on our economy, culture, and personal lives. And we'll always do so in about 30 minutes.

You can check out AppStories' website here, or, even better, subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

You can also find AppStories on:

Alternatively, you can just hit Play on our embedded episode card below to start listening to the first episode of AppStories.

AppStories is an important milestone for the MacStories team, as well as an idea I've been pondering for several years. Just like MacStories, we're committed to AppStories and we'll keep doing this for a long time. Despite its long gestation, this is just the beginning for AppStories, which will become an essential complement to MacStories going forward. I am extremely excited about AppStories and the plans we've outlined so far.

If you're not interested in the backstory, I'd love for you to check out the first episode and subscribe. But if you want to learn more and understand what our goals for AppStories are, allow me to start from the beginning.

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The Future of Workflow

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.

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Working from an iPhone

One of my goals in 2016 was to make working from my iPhone as efficient as possible. The desire to make this happen initially sprung from experiences raising a baby. My wife and I began foster parenting in July of 2015, and one of our foster children was AJ, a four-week-old baby boy. AJ ended up staying with us for about a year before returning to his birth mother, and in that year I learned that when raising a baby, there are frequently occasions when only one hand is available for computing. I would often have a hand tied up feeding AJ or carrying him around, and if I needed to get any work done during that time, my iPad Pro was no help. iPads are built for two-handed computing, while iPhones work great with one.

In addition to the motivation of being able to get work done with one hand, one of the things I've learned during the past couple years is that the best computer for work is the one you have with you. Despite the iPad Pro being more portable than most Macs, it still pales in portability compared to the iPhone. Because my iPad doesn't travel with me everywhere, I need to be able to do anything on my iPhone that I can on my iPad.

Between my two current jobs, much of my work can be done while on the go – whether I'm waiting for an oil change to be completed, standing in a seemingly endless DMV line, or any similar scenario. In these short intervals of life, there are moments work can be done – which is where my iPhone comes in, because it's with me wherever I go.

If and when a pressing work issue comes up, in many cases it can't just be ignored until I get back to my desk; my iPhone needs to be capable of handling the task. Even if the issue isn't time-sensitive, getting things done while I'm out makes the load lighter when I do get back to my desk.

I've grown extremely proficient in using my iPhone to get things done, and there are six key things I've identified that make that possible.

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App Extensions Are Not a Replacement for User Automation

Here’s a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that Apple decided to combine their engineering resources to form app teams that delivered both iOS and macOS versions of applications.

In such a scenario it may seem logical to retain application features common to both platforms and to remove those that were perceived to require extra resources. Certainly Automation would be something examined in that regard, and the idea might be posited that: “App Extensions are equivalent to, or could be a replacement for, User Automation in macOS.” And by User Automation, I’m referring to Apple Event scripting, Automator, Services, the UNIX command line utilities, etc.

Let’s examine the validity of that conjecture, beginning with overviews of App Extensions and User Automation.

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3D Touch for Power Users

If you read and listen to enough opinions in the Apple-sphere, you know that there are widely varying views of 3D Touch. Some quickly gave up on it, others found it indispensable, and there seem to be plenty of people in between. When Apple first announced the feature alongside the iPhone 6s, I was intrigued by the potential of 3D Touch to add a new dimension of depth to an otherwise flat slate of glass.

When I got an iPhone 6s, I immediately found that some uses of 3D Touch were handy, but those uses were overshadowed by Apple's marketing message that focused on peek and pop, distracting from the more valuable benefits the feature offers. However, when I pushed aside the Apple-marketing-infused expectations of how 3D Touch should be used, I quickly discovered how valuable it can be in many cases.

It has been over fifteen months since I began using 3D Touch, and I'm convinced that the true value of it only becomes evident through dedicated practice. If you just use 3D Touch now and then, you may find yourself frustrated by not knowing or remembering what all it can be used for. The lack of iPad support doesn't help here.

The start of a new year is a perfect time to learn new habits. As we reflect on the year gone by, it is a good time to consider changes for the year ahead – new habits to form, improved practices to follow – with an aim to make our lives better. Train yourself to use 3D Touch, and you'll benefit in the long run. The closest analogy to 3D Touch I can think of is keyboard shortcuts. Nobody has to learn keyboard shortcuts, but if you're a power user, you learn them because you know they'll make your life and work easier and more efficient. 3D Touch can do the same; it improves interactions with my iPhone on a daily basis.

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MarcyMoji: A Sticker Tour Around the World

When Apple launched the iMessage App Store with the release of iOS 10, it was dominated by sticker packs. Many of my personal favorites came from Disney, including the Star Wars , Zootopia , and Mickey & Friends packs. But one of the nice things about the new App Store was its accessibility to a wide variety of creatives, not just the big players like Disney. A simple sticker pack truly requires no coding knowledge. Because of that, since day one there has been an abundance of sticker options on the iMessage App Store, each with a unique story behind it.

One such story comes from Marcy Smith and Andrew Williams, the creators of MarcyMoji . Born out of Marcy's lifelong love of painting, MarcyMoji was originally conceived as a custom keyboard, but Apple's announcements at WWDC quickly shifted the couple's focus to building an iMessage app.

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The Businesses Apple Has Left Behind

This year, Apple has exited the external display business and is rumored to be discontinuing its AirPort wireless routers.

These developments have left a bad taste in many users' mouths, but 2016 isn't the first time Apple has shuttered an entire product line.

By my count, there are five major categories of products or devices that Apple has abandoned over the years.

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A Computer for Everything: One Year of iPad Pro

I wasn't sure I needed a 12.9-inch iPad when Apple announced the iPad Pro in September 2015. And yet, over a year later, the iPad Pro is, by far, the best computer I've ever owned. I've never felt so satisfied with any other Apple device before – but the transition wasn't easy.

After years spent adapting what I learned from the Mac to bring it to iOS, what I found on the other side was a more focused, efficient way of working and communicating with people. The iPad Pro accelerated my move to an iOS-only setup; today, I genuinely don't know how to perform certain tasks on a Mac anymore.

I use my iPad Pro for everything. It's my writing machine and favorite research tool, but I also rely on it to organize my finances, play games, read books and watch movies, program in Python and Workflow, and manage two successful businesses. While I've been advocating for such multi-purpose use of the iPad platform for a while, the iPad Pro elevated the threshold of possibilities, reaching an inflection point that has pushed others to switch to an iPad as their primary computer as well.

Much of the iPad's strength lies in iOS and its app ecosystem. If Apple were to stop making iPads, I'd still prefer to work on a device that runs iOS rather than macOS. iOS is where app innovation happens on a regular basis with developers one-upping each other in terms of what software can achieve; I also prefer the structure and interactions of iOS itself. The iPad Pro is the purest representation of iOS: it's a computer that can transform into anything you need it to be.

Even if this discussion was settled a long time ago, it bears repeating: millions of people today like working on iOS more than they do on macOS, and the iPad Pro is the best machine to run iOS. There is no sarcastic subtext about the Mac here, which is still a fantastic environment that many Apple users love and need for their line of work. The Mac and the iPad can coexist in a market where customers believe one is superior to the other. I prefer working on the iPad; others like their Macs more. And that's fine because, ultimately, the Apple ecosystem as a whole grows stronger and we all reap the benefits.

Over the past year of daily iPad Pro usage, I've made it my personal goal to optimize my iPad workflows as much as possible. This is one of the best aspects of the iOS platform: competition between developers is fierce and you can always choose between different apps to get work done – apps that are improved on a regular basis and are constantly updated for the latest iOS technologies. With enough curiosity and patience, iOS rewards you with the discovery of new ways to work and save time.

Since my last iPad story in February, I've taken a hard look at my entire iPad setup and rethought the parts that weren't working. I tried new apps, created new automations, and optimized every weak spot I could find. I improved how I collaborate with my teammates and produce weekly content for Club MacStories members. Thanks to the time I invested in understanding and fine-tuning my iPad Pro, I was able to embark on more projects, double MacStories' growth, and manage a larger team.

As a result, my iPad Pro today is noticeably more capable than it was a year ago – all without the need for a hardware refresh.

Here's what I've done.

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