In researching topics for the Automation Academy over the past few months, I’ve been digging into all the details of Apple’s built-in actions and comparing them against older versions of the Shortcuts app as well as third-party options offered by developers. In doing this, I’ve realized something that has been bothering me for a while: there is a clear inconsistency between modern features in Apple apps and their associated Shortcuts actions. The gap between functionalities in apps and matching Shortcuts actions has expanded over the years, and I think it’s time Apple takes a serious look at its app actions to reverse this trend.
Posts tagged with "automation"
Today, I’m pleased to introduce Apple Frames 2.0, an all-new version of my popular shortcut to put screenshots inside physical device frames of Apple products. The new Apple Frames, which you can download at the end of this post or on the MacStories Shortcuts Archive, has been completely rewritten so it’s faster and lighter, comes with support for the latest iPhone 13 lineup and iPad mini, brings support for framing iMac and MacBook Air screenshots, and, at long last, is available internationally in seven different languages.
This is a massive update to Apple Frames, so let’s dive in.
The more I use Shortcuts, the more I realize that in many ways, user automation on iOS has outpaced automation on the Mac. Let me give you an example: On iOS I built a shortcut to grab the contents of selected text in Safari and open the results in a text editor—converted to Markdown, with the title of the page set as the title and its URL set as a link. It’s not remotely the most complicated shortcut I’ve built, but it’s great—and has saved me a lot of time while improving the quality of my link posts…
I love it so much, I decided to build the same automation on the Mac. The results were ugly. My Keyboard Maestro macro forces Safari to copy the selected text to the clipboard, moves to BBEdit, opens a new window, pastes in the HTML, runs an HTML to Markdown Service on the selection, then runs an AppleScript script that cleans up the results. It’s ridiculous.
This is a fantastic example of something that I’ve experienced over and over to the point where I hesitate before trying to automate anything on the Mac. As Jason points out, Shortcuts isn’t exactly easy, but I find that I usually spend the most time figuring out the best approach to a problem rather than how to implement it in Shortcuts, which is automation at its best. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle that encourages me to experiment more with Shortcuts and use Mac automation less.
In the last update to Apple Frames – my shortcut to put screenshots captured on iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch inside physical device frames – from December, I added support for the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max. Since the introduction of revamped widgets in iOS 14, Apple Frames is the only shortcut I’ve configured as a small, standalone Shortcuts widget on the first page of my Home Screen: I use it dozens of times every single day, and I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of time its image-based automation has saved me over the years.
In September, I shared WallCreator, a shortcut to generate wallpapers for iPhone and iPad using gradients or solid colors. The first version of WallCreator allowed you to generate randomized wallpapers with just a couple taps from either the Shortcuts app or Home Screen widget. Because it was built entirely with native HTML and CSS actions, the shortcut had no external dependencies and didn’t require any third-party apps or connections to web servers. Here’s what I wrote:
Here’s the gist of what WallCreator can do: with just a few taps, you can either generate a wallpaper with a solid color or gradient. You can choose to enter your own colors (using their English names or Hex codes) or, even better, let WallCreator generate random solid colors or gradients for you.
You don’t need to worry about anything else: WallCreator will create the right version of a wallpaper for different iPhone and iPad models automatically, without having to specify any option; at the end of the shortcut, you can preview the newly-generated wallpaper and, if you like it, save it as an image to the Photos app. Otherwise, you can tell WallCreator you want to generate another image and start over.
Today, I’m pleased to announce the release of WallCreator 2.0, which has been updated for iOS and iPadOS 14.3 and Shortcuts’ new ‘Set Wallpaper’ action. Among other additions (which I’m going to detail below), WallCreator can now both save and install wallpapers on your device for you. Furthermore, thanks to the comeback of the ‘Set Wallpaper’ action, I’ve been able to create a WallCreator “spin-off” that runs as a headless automation and can change either your Home Screen or Lock Screen wallpaper (or both) on your behalf, with no manual interactions required. This is a pretty big update to WallCreator, so let’s dive in.
When I released the updated version of Apple Frames, my shortcut to quickly put screenshots inside physical frames of Apple devices, in late October, I was only able to add support for the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro. Unlike other shortcuts you may find on the Internet, Apple Frames is based on Apple’s official device images, which are available on the company’s Marketing page here. At the time, the .zip file labeled ‘iPhone 12’ only contained assets for the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, and I promised I’d add support for the smallest and biggest iPhone models as soon as possible.
Last week, Nintendo rolled out a new feature that simplifies importing screenshots and videos taken on a Nintendo Switch on any smart device. As part of the console’s 11.0 firmware, you can now share up to 10 screenshots or a single video capture from the Nintendo Switch media gallery and, by scanning a series of QR codes with your phone or tablet, wirelessly connect your device to the console and save them via a web browser. Although Nintendo’s approach may not be as intuitive or modern as, say, Microsoft automatically saving all screenshots you take on an Xbox console and uploading them to your Xbox account, it is a clever, platform-agnostic solution that will keep working with any device that can scan a QR code and connect to the console’s Wi-Fi network.1
As someone who plays a lot of Nintendo Switch games2 and has always disliked having to share screenshots via Nintendo’s Twitter integration on the Switch, I’ve long wanted an easier way to send images and videos from the console to my iPhone and iPad. As soon as I tested Nintendo’s new feature, I had a feeling I could further speed up the process with Shortcuts and remove the (little) friction left in Nintendo’s system for sharing media between the console and smart devices.
The result is ShortSwitch, a shortcut that automatically recognizes media being shared by a Nintendo Switch over Wi-Fi and which gives you the option to save all items at once in Photos or Files, share them via the share sheet, or copy them to the clipboard. ShortSwitch does this by directly accessing the local web server created by the Nintendo Switch to share media; because it doesn’t need to connect to the Internet or use third-party apps, ShortSwitch runs instantly and allows you to save multiple items at once in just a couple seconds. Even better, you can configure ShortSwitch to run as a Personal Automation on your iPhone and iPad, which means the shortcut will run automatically as soon as you connect your iPhone or iPad to a Nintendo Switch.
You can download ShortSwitch at the end of this article and find it (alongside 220+ other free shortcuts) in the MacStories Shortcuts Archive. Now, allow me to explain how ShortSwitch works and how I put it together.
Juli Clover, writing at MacRumors about a tweak to Shortcuts in iOS 14.3 beta 2:
Apple in iOS 14.3 is streamlining the Home Screen customization process by simplifying the way that app shortcuts work. With the launch of iOS 14, users quickly discovered that Shortcuts could be used to replace traditional app icons to create an entirely customized Home Screen look.
Unfortunately, while these Home Screens created with Shortcuts looked fantastic, the experience was less than ideal because launching an app through shortcuts required the Shortcuts app to open briefly, slowing the app opening process. In iOS 14.3 beta 2, that’s no longer the case because shortcuts no longer have to route through the Shortcuts app.
As Reddit users discovered after installing yesterday’s beta, launching an app through Shortcuts on the Home Screen in iOS 14.3 pops up a banner at the top of the display, but the full Shortcuts app no longer opens, so there’s less of a delay when using a custom icon to launch apps.
When I covered the new Shortcuts widget in my review of iOS and iPadOS 14, I noted how disappointing it was that shortcuts added to the Home Screen as custom icons couldn’t take advantage of compact UI, which makes shortcuts dramatically faster to run. This single tweak has major implications for casual and power users alike, and it’s fascinating for a couple reasons.
First, it shows that Apple is very much aware of the fact that millions of people are personalizing their Home Screens with custom icons that are actually shortcuts based on an ‘Open App’ action. As of iOS 14.2, those custom icons don’t open the linked app directly: they take you to Shortcuts first, which then launches the app you need; it’s an annoying limitation, and it’s why I couldn’t get into customizing my Home Screen icons – when I tap a Safari icon, I want Safari to open immediately. With iOS 14.3, that’s going to be the case, and I have to assume Apple is doing this because of the popularity of this technique over the past few months. Even better, when folks who customized their Home Screens update their devices to iOS 14.3, all their custom icons will instantly switch over to the new direct-launching behavior – they won’t have to recreate those custom shortcuts from scratch.
Second, compact UI means that running shortcuts from the Home Screen as custom icons will once again be better than doing so via widgets. In iOS 14.3 beta 2, custom icons and widgets run shortcuts exactly the same way, except that you can place more custom shortcut icons on a single Home Screen page than widgets. I lamented the low information density of the Shortcuts widget in my iOS and iPadOS 14 review as well; with iOS 14.3, I’ll be able to place four custom shortcut icons in the same slot where a single Shortcuts widget would go, and I won’t have to sacrifice the convenience of compact UI. When it comes to custom shortcut icons that open apps, I just wish Apple would add an option to get rid of the confirmation banner that pops up every time you launch an app via a custom icon. Is that banner really necessary after you’ve launched that custom shortcut dozens of times?
I’ve updated both my iPhone and iPad to iOS 14.3 beta, and I guess I’ll have to spend some time rethinking my Home Screen (again) to include several MacStories Shortcuts Icons alongside app icons, replacing the Shortcuts widgets I added last month. This is going to be fun, and I hope Apple will continue to improve this feature with an option to disable the confirmation banner.
In December 2019, I published MusicBot, my all-in-one Apple Music shortcut to play music, get quick access to favorite albums and new releases, rediscover old gems in your music library, and lots more. MusicBot is one of the most complex shortcuts I’ve ever created and, along with Apple Frames, it’s among the shortcuts I use the most on a daily basis.
Over the past 11 months, MusicBot has been downloaded thousands of times from the MacStories Shortcuts Archive, and I’ve been saving a variety of ideas and user requests for features that would extend MusicBot’s capabilities and make it easier to use on iOS and iPadOS 14.
The result is MusicBot 1.1, the first substantial update to the original shortcut that introduces full support for iOS 14’s compact UI and Home Screen widgets, Shazam integration, the ability to read music news and check release dates inside MusicBot, plus other fixes and enhancements.
Let’s dive in.