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.
Posts tagged with "automation"
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.
I switched to Things as my task manager late last year, sometime before the holidays. While I discussed this decision at length on Connected and AppStories, I didn't write about it on MacStories because I didn't want to rehash Ryan's in-depth review of Things 3. In terms of design and features, everything I like about Things is covered in his original review.
My personal motivation for switching to Things boils down to this: the way projects and the Today screen are designed in Things fits well with my schedule, and doesn't stress me out. Things has a "calm" interface that doesn't turn overdue tasks red, making me feel guilty; projects are clearly laid out with a tasteful use of San Francisco, and further organization can be applied to a project using headings, a feature I've never seen in any other task manager. And among dozens of thoughtful touches, Things' separation of Today and This Evening for the current day is absolutely in line with how I think about my typical day. In short: I want 2018 to be less stressful than last year, and Things is helping with the task management part.
That said, as someone who used 2Do and Todoist in the past and heavily automated them for integration with other apps, I was missing some solid automation options from Things. Cultured Code has offered a basic URL scheme in their iOS app for a few years now, but the supported commands never went beyond the ability to create basic, metadata-free tasks in the app.
This is changing today with Things 3.4, which I've had the opportunity to test and experiment with for the past couple of months. With this new version, the folks at Cultured Code have shipped one of the most powerful and versatile URL scheme action libraries seen in a task manager for iOS – comparable to Omni's work on OmniFocus, and, in a way, perhaps even more flexible.
The new Things URL scheme, which has been documented here, lets you create tasks, projects, show specific sections of the app, and search across your entire Things database. This may not sound too impressive on paper, but what sets this feature apart is the level of customization and detail that can be applied to every single parameter of every action. As a result, Things is now a first-class citizen of the iOS automation scene, and, within the limitations of iOS inter-app communication, its URL scheme unlocks several new possible integrations with apps and workflows.
Furthermore, Cultured Code wants to make it easy for third-party developers to natively support sending data to Things from their apps. Today, the company is also introducing a JSON-based command to allow more control when adding items to Things from external apps, and they've created a set of Swift helper classes that apps can use to easily generate the JSON needed to pass data to Things. As I'll demonstrate later in this article, a couple developers of two of my favorite iOS apps are already taking advantage of these capabilities to great effect.
As you can imagine, I've been busy experimenting with the new automation features of Things and identifying aspects of the app I wanted to speed up by integrating them with other apps. Below, you'll find a collection of the launchers and workflows I've put together for Things 3.4. These are the actions and scripts I find myself using the most on a daily basis, and which I believe considerably extend Things' capabilities on the iPhone and iPad. More advanced workflows will follow over the next couple of weeks (and months) exclusively for Club MacStories members in the Workflow Corner section of MacStories Weekly.
Let's dig in.
I've always been fascinated by Letterboxd, the popular service to catalog and rate movies you've watched, as well as share your appreciation for the art of film with other users in a social network-type environment. My problem, however, is that dedicating serious time to watching quality movies (instead of whatever is on TV) has mostly been an aspirational effort; I never truly attempted to make a list of films I want to watch and set aside a good chunk of time every week to enjoy them.
Among various "quality of life" improvements (which I briefly mentioned in this episode of Analog(ue) with Myke Hurley), earlier this year I decided to create an Airtable database with a list of movies I want to see, trying to tick one off at least every week. Since I started testing a beta of Letterboxd 2.0 for iOS last week though, I'm wondering if maybe now is the time for me to consider using a dedicated service to collect, rate, and discover movies.
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 long been using Prizmo to quickly extract text contained in photos using the iPhone's camera. Developed by Creaceed, Prizmo has always stood out among iOS scanner apps thanks to its accurate and fast OCR. While most scanner apps focus on digitizing documents and exporting PDFs, Prizmo complemented that functionality with the ability to recognize and share text with just a couple of taps. Prizmo could be used as a scanner app for paperless workflows, but I preferred to keep it on my devices as a dedicated utility to effortlessly extract and share text.
With Prizmo Go, released today on the App Store, Creaceed is doubling down on Prizmo's best feature with a separate app that's been entirely designed with OCR and sharing text in mind. While OCR was a feature of Prizmo, it becomes the cornerstone of the experience in Prizmo Go, which takes advantage of impressive new OCR technologies to make character recognition smarter, faster, and better integrated with other iOS apps.
When I covered DEVONthink To Go in the first iPad Diaries column back in February, I briefly mentioned the app's limited support for URL schemes and automation. I concluded the article noting that DEVONthink's advanced file management features were ideal candidates for my writing workflow – particularly given the app's ability to store different types of documents, reference them with unique links, and search them with Boolean operators. I also expanded upon the idea of using DEVONthink as my only iOS file manager in the latest episode of Mac Power Users.
I've been moving more work documents and other research material (web archives and PDFs, mostly) to DEVONthink over the past two months. The turning point occurred a few weeks ago, when DEVONtechnologies began adding advanced x-callback-url automation to DEVONthink's beta channel and were kind enough to let me test and provide feedback for the functionality.
I was genuinely excited by the prospect of a scriptable DEVONthink: due to iOS' lack of a deeply integrated Finder, I've always wanted a file manager that could be extended and enhanced through automation and other apps. With an improved set of URL commands and various optimizations for usage in Workflow, DEVONthink To Go can now be that kind of file manager. I made my decision: this is the app I'm going to use to manage the research content for my iOS 11 review this summer.
The automation features introduced by DEVONtechnologies in the latest DEVONthink for iOS go deep into the app's structure, covering discrete functionalities such as file creation, search, and data retrieval. These changes will enable a greater number of users to integrate DEVONthink with their favorite iPad apps and workflows. And while the new commands are documented in the app, I thought it'd be useful to provide some concrete examples of how we can take DEVONthink to the next level through automation.
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.