In seven years of MacStories, few iOS apps fundamentally changed how I get work done as much as Workflow. Pythonista, Editorial, and Tweetbot are in that list, but Workflow, with its ongoing improvements and deep iOS integrations, continuously makes me question how I can optimize my setup further.
Nearly two years (and an Apple Design Award) later, Workflow is reaching version 1.5 today, an important milestone towards the road to 2.0. Unsurprisingly for the Workflow team, this release adds over 20 new actions and dozens of improvements. Some of them are new app actions based on URL schemes, while others introduce brand new system integrations (such as iTunes Store, App Store, and Safari View Controller) and web actions for the popular Trello team collaboration service. Workflow 1.5 is a packed release that is going to save heavy Workflow users a lot of time.
After testing and playing with Workflow 1.5 for the past month, I've been able to streamline key aspects of writing for MacStories and managing Club MacStories. With a bigger team and more Club responsibilities, we've been thinking about how to improve our shared tasks and creative process; Workflow 1.5 has played an essential role in it.
Mac Power Users co-host David Sparks has released his latest MacSparky publication:
The Hazel Video Field Guide. Hazel is one of my favorite automation tools, and was recently updated to version 4. I bought it before I even downloaded the new version. That’s how great of a tool it is.
As David says: “The thing I love about Hazel is the way it can turn mere mortals into automation gods. Anybody can do this. You don't need a lick of programming knowledge.” He’s right. Hazel is easier than Folder Actions, and a lot more powerful too. If you can write Mail.app rules, you can automate your Mac with Hazel.
But what if you’ve never used Hazel and want to jump right in and learn the best of what it has to offer? That’s where David comes in. In almost 2.5 hours of video, David will walk you through Hazel, showing you everything from the basics to more advanced features using AppleScript. I’ve been using Hazel for years and would call myself a power user, but I learned some new tricks from David in this guide.
When iOS 8 came out, I thought I'd stop using URL schemes altogether. Until two years ago1, my attempts at working on iOS had focused on overcoming the lack of inter-app communication with URL scheme automation, as our old coverage here at MacStories can attest. iOS 8 showed a new way to get things done on the iPhone and iPad thanks to extensions, eschewing the limited functionality (and security concerns) of URL schemes for a native, integrated foundation.
Two years later, I've largely reappraised my usage of URL schemes, but, unlike I first imagined, they haven't disappeared completely from my iOS computing life. iOS automation has taken on a different form since 2014: thanks to its action extension, Workflow has brought deeply integrated automation to every app, while Pythonista remains the most powerful environment for those who prefer to dabble with Python scripting and advanced tasks (also while taking advantage of an action extension to be activated from apps).
Today, URL schemes are being used by developers and users who want to go beyond the limitations of system extensions: apps like Drafts and Workflow use URL schemes to invoke specific apps directly (which extensions can't do – see Airmail and its custom app actions) and to link more complex chains of automated actions. URL schemes are also the best way to set up templates and import workflows for dedicated functionalities – a good example being The Omni Group with their latest automation options for template generation in OmniFocus.
While Apple's goal with iOS 8 might have been to "kill" URL schemes by turning them into a niche technology mostly supplanted by extensions, that niche has continued to quietly thrive. iOS automation is drastically better (and more secure) today because of extensions, but, for many, URL schemes still are the backbone of app shortcuts and complex workflows. Where extensions can't go, there's a good chance a URL scheme will do the trick.
It's in this modern iOS automation landscape that Launcher, first released in 2014, is graduating to version 2.0 with a focus on what it does best: standalone app shortcuts. Launcher 2.0 offers more control than its predecessor over widget customization and activation, with new features and settings that have pushed me to reconsider how I use Notification Center widgets on both my iPhone and iPad Pro.
Hazel is one of the first utilities that I install when I get a new Mac. Judging from the Noodlesoft forums, there are many people who use Hazel far more heavily than I do, but it is no less important to my Mac setup. By automating what would otherwise be repetitive file management tasks, Hazel helps keep me focused on more important tasks. Today, Hazel 4 was released with new features and refinements that bring new power and convenience to an already exceptional app.
Microsoft has entered the web automation space with Flow, a new service currently in public preview that aims to connect multiple web apps together. Microsoft describes Flow as a way to "create automated workflows between your favorite apps and services to get notifications, synchronize files, collect data, and more".
From the Microsoft blog:
Microsoft Flow makes it easy to mash-up two or more different services. Today, Microsoft Flow is publicly available as a preview, at no cost. We have connections to 35+ different services, including both Microsoft services like OneDrive and SharePoint, and public software services like Slack, Twitter and Salesforce.com, with more being added every week.
I took Flow for a quick spin today, and it looks, for now, like a less powerful, less intuitive Zapier targeted at business users. You can create multi-step flows with more than two apps, but Flow lacks the rich editor of Zapier; in my tests, the web interface crashed often on the iPad (I guess that's why they call it a preview); and, in general, 35 supported services pales in comparison to the hundreds of options offered by Zapier.
Still, it's good to see Microsoft joining this area and it makes sense for the new, cloud-oriented Microsoft to offer this kind of solution. Flow doesn't have the consumer features of IFTTT (such as support for home automation devices and iOS apps) or the power of Zapier (which I like and use every day), but I'll keep an eye on it.
Derek Reiff, writing on The Omni Blog:
Recently customers have been wanting to take advantage of automation apps like Workflow, Drafts, Pythonista, and others to quickly add new actions or projects or switch to different views inside OmniFocus.
With 2.14, OmniFocus now includes best-of-class support for callback URLs. At its simplest, this means that you can create a workflow that adds more than one item to OmniFocus. But we didn’t just add support for two-way communication between OmniFocus and other apps, we added support for automating a whole lot more of the powerful capabilities of OmniFocus.
Ken goes into the nitty gritty in a detailed Discourse post. But aside from doing the usual name and note additions, you can add estimates, attachments, dates, repetition rules, flags, and even set a project to Parallel.
While I won't be switching away from 2Do, I've tried the beta of OmniFocus 2.14 and the new automation features on iOS are impressive. I think a lot of people are going to reconsider OmniFocus and take advantage of callbacks for app integrations.
The examples posted by Ken Case on the forums should give you an idea of the improved capabilities. It's no surprise that The Omni Group continues to redefine what making pro apps on iOS means.
It's also great to see TaskPaper being used as a structured text communication format – I'd like to see more developers follow this route.
Great change for those who want to populate their journal entries with content from the web: Day One has launched their IFTTT channel today, which will let you create all sorts of automated recipes such as saving Instagram pictures to a journal, emailing a new entry to yourself, or logging check-ins from a third-party service.
Much as Day One 2 was criticized for ditching iCloud and Dropbox in lieu of its own sync, integrations like this are always better when the developers can fully control the sync platform they're using. Thanks to Day One Sync and support for multiple journals, you can connect to IFTTT and set your recipes to save data into a dedicated journal separate from your main thoughts (something that bugged me a few years ago with a similar solution).
I've been playing around with the beta of Day One + IFTTT, and it works well. I have recipes to save liked tweets and YouTube videos to an 'Internet' journal, and I'm planning to build more soon. If you use Day One and IFTTT, this is a fantastic addition.
As much as I like to use Workflow for every task I don't want to perform manually, until last week there were still some things I couldn't automate with the app. Those tasks were utterly specific: converting HTML and rich text back to Markdown (with my beloved html2text in Python), or assembling iOS screenshots with pretty device frames (with LongScreen). With the release of Workflow 1.4.4 today, I can finally integrate these two key tasks into Workflow's automation, and I'm in love with the results.
The new multi-step editor in Zapier.
I've long been interested in web automation as a complement to my iOS apps and workflows. While I expressed my fair share of skepticism about the practical benefits of web automation in the past – primarily due to a lack of native apps to trigger recipes on IFTTT and Zapier – with time I've learned to appreciate the ability to automate web services and let them perform tedious tasks for me. The fact that I'm increasingly relying on web services with iOS apps that are simple front-ends to data that lives in the cloud might be related, too.1 My use of web automation isn't dramatically creative: I have a couple of Do Button recipes to send automated emails with one tap; I forward YouTube updates and some RSS items to Slack; and, I let a couple of Twitter accounts tweet on my behalf with automated recipes because I'd forget otherwise. Nothing too revolutionary.
Today, Zapier – the power-user (and paid) alternative to IFTTT – is launching multi-step zaps (the equivalent of recipes in IFTTT), which I was able to test for the past week. I've long preferred Zapier to IFTTT for the additional controls that it offers when building complex web automations. Zapier lets you assign filters to actions, you can parse data from email messages with a dedicated Zapier Parser service, and, generally speaking, everything is built with an eye for people who, like me, want to tweak as much as possible. Multi-step zaps fit squarely into this strategy and they're, by far, the most powerful solution I've tried to chain multiple web services together and save time.