On last week’s episode of Adapt I shared that automation for running shortcuts was one of my top two feature requests for iOS 13. And despite the Shortcuts app not receiving much stage time during the WWDC keynote, Apple has officially granted my wish in a big way.
The Shortcuts app in iOS 13 has a new Automation tab, in which you can configure shortcuts that automatically run based on a wide variety of triggers. Currently, certain automation actions require sending a notification first when the trigger is activated, and that alert contains the option to run the shortcut; other actions, however, include a toggle that determines whether the automation runs automatically in the background, or if you’d prefer an alert instead.
Here is the full list of current automation triggers in iOS 13 beta 1:
For the past seven years, I've considered the iPad my main computer. Not my only one, and not the most powerful one I own, but the computer which I use and enjoy using the most.
I've told this story on various occasions before, but it's worth mentioning for context once again. My iPad journey began in 2012 when I was undergoing cancer treatments. In the first half of the year, right after my diagnosis, I was constantly moving between hospitals to talk to different doctors and understand the best strategies for my initial round of treatments. Those chemo treatments, it turned out, often made me too tired to get any work done. I wanted to continue working for MacStories because it was a healthy distraction that kept my brain busy, but my MacBook Air was uncomfortable to carry around and I couldn't use it in my car as it lacked a cellular connection. By contrast, the iPad was light, it featured built-in 3G, and it allowed me to stay in touch with the MacStories team from anywhere, at any time with the comfort of a large, beautiful Retina display.
The tipping point came when I had to be hospitalized for three consecutive weeks to undergo aggressive chemo treatments; in that period of time, I concluded that the extreme portability and freedom granted by the iPad had become essential for me. I started exploring the idea of using the iPad as my primary computer (see this story for more details); if anything were to ever happen to me again that prevented being at my desk in my home office, I wanted to be prepared. That meant embracing iOS, iPad apps, and a different way of working on a daily basis.
I realized when writing this story that I've been running MacStories from my iPad for longer than I ever ran it from a Mac. The website turned 10 last month, and I've managed it almost exclusively from an iPad for seven of those years. And yet, I feel like I'm still adapting to the iPad lifestyle myself – I'm still figuring out the best approaches and forcing myself to be creative in working around the limitations of iOS.
On one hand, some may see this as an indictment of Apple's slow evolution of the iPad platform, with biennial tablet-focused iOS releases that have left long-standing issues still yet to be fixed. And they're not wrong: I love working from my iPad, but I recognize how some aspects of its software are still severely lagging behind macOS. On the other hand, I won't lie: I've always enjoyed the challenge of "figuring out the iPad" and pushing myself to be creative and productive in a more constrained environment.
In addition to discovering new apps I could cover on MacStories, rethinking how I could work on the iPad provided me with a mental framework that I likely wouldn't have developed on a traditional desktop computer. If I was in a hospital bed and couldn't use a Mac, that meant someone else from the MacStories team had to complete a specific, Mac-only task. In a way, the limitations of the iPad taught me the importance of delegation – a lesson I was forced into. As a result, for the first couple of years, the constrained nature of the iPad helped me be more creative and focused on my writing; before the days of Split View and drag and drop, the iPad was the ideal device to concentrate on one task at a time.
Over the following couple of years, I learned how to navigate the iPad's limitations and started optimizing them to get more work done on the device (I was also cancer-free, which obviously helped). This is when I came across the iOS automation scene with apps such as Pythonista, Editorial, Drafts, and eventually Workflow. Those apps, despite the oft-unreliable nature of their workarounds, enabled me to push iOS and the iPad further than what Apple had perhaps envisioned for the device at the time; in hindsight, building hundreds of automations for Workflow prepared me for the bold, more powerful future of Shortcuts. Automation isn't supposed to replace core functionality of an operating system; normally, it should be an enhancement on the side, an addition for users who seek the extra speed and flexibility it provides. Yet years ago, those automation apps were the only way to accomplish more serious work on the iPad. I'm glad I learned how to use them because, at the end of the day, they allowed me to get work done – even though it wasn't the easiest or most obvious path.
When Apple announced the iPad Pro in 2015, it felt like a vindication of the idea that, for lots of iOS users – myself included – it was indeed possible to treat the iPad as a laptop replacement. And even though not much has changed (yet?) since 2017's iOS 11 in terms of what the iPad Pro's software can do, the modern iPad app ecosystem is vastly different from the early days of the iPad 3 and iOS 5, and that's all thanks to the iPad Pro and Apple's push for pro apps and a financially-viable App Store.
Seven years after I started (slowly) replacing my MacBook Air with an iPad, my life is different, but one principle still holds true: I never want to find myself forced to work on a computer that's only effective at home, that can't be held in my hands, or that can't be customized for different setups. For this reason, the iPad Pro is the best computer for the kind of lifestyle I want.
However, the iPad is not perfect. And so in the spirit of offering one final update before WWDC and the massive release for iPad that iOS 13 will likely be, I thought I'd summarize seven years of daily iPad usage in one article that details how I work from the device and how I'd like the iPad platform to improve in the future.
In this story, I will explore four different major areas of working on the iPad using iOS 12 system features, third-party apps, and accessories. I'll describe how I optimized each area to my needs, explain the solutions I implemented to work around the iPad's software limitations, and argue how those workarounds shouldn't be necessary anymore as the iPad approaches its tenth anniversary.
Consider this my iPad Manifesto, right on the cusp of WWDC. Let's dive in.
Thoughtful take by Jason Snell on the recent discussion around the idea that Shortcuts may be coming to the Mac and what that could mean for macOS automation. Snell imagines a scenario where Quick Actions, introduced last year with Mojave, could act as a bridge between old-school Mac apps and a new breed of Marzipan apps compatible (in theory) with Shortcuts only:
Something funny happened in macOS Mojave. Apple actually brushed off some very old Mac OS X technology, Services, and gave it a rebrand as Quick Actions. Quick Actions are commands you can find in Quick Look previews, the Finder’s new Gallery view, and on the Touch Bar. Some are pre-built by Apple, but users can add their own by saving Automator actions as Quick Actions.
I have no idea what prompted Apple to bubble up Automator actions into more places in the macOS interface with Mojave, but Quick Actions strikes me as a pretty good companion to Siri Shortcuts. Imagine a scenario where apps originating on iOS can support Siri Shortcuts via the same methods they use on iOS. Now imagine that Siri Shortcuts can also use Quick Actions as a source for potential commands. Quick Actions are contextual, those old-school Mac apps can bring their own Quick Actions to the party, and users can build their own Quick Actions to do whatever they want. It would be a simple way to bridge the gap between the two different app types that Mac users will be using together, at least for a while.
As I argued on Connected a couple of weeks ago, I'm intrigued by the idea that a Mac version of Shortcuts could have built-in bridges for old automation tools (shell, AppleScript, Automator, etc.) to at least trigger those scripts from the new app. Quick Actions would be a great fit for this; in fact, I find the whole idea of Quick Actions is well suited the Files app on iOS as well.
Shortcuts 2.2, the second major update to Apple's automation app following October's 2.1 release, has been released on the App Store today. The new version of Shortcuts, which has been available to developers for testing via TestFlight for several weeks now, brings a variety of smaller refinements and bug fixes; more importantly, it extends Shortcuts' integration with one of Apple's most popular built-in apps: Notes. Additionally, Shortcuts 2.2 builds upon the existing 'Get Travel Time' action (based on the Apple Maps framework) with new Magic Variables well suited for shortcuts that integrate with Siri.
For the past few weeks, I've been building advanced shortcuts that take advantage of the new actions for Notes and Maps, which I'm going to explain and share in this article. The new shortcuts are also available through the MacStories Shortcuts Archive, which now features a dedicated Apple Notes section as well. Let's dive in.
The quest for the perfect text application – for some of us it has been a lifelong goal, or at least it feels like it. I realised very early on in my computing life that I did not enjoy playing with formatting in Word or Pages, and when I discovered that Markdown provides the ability to make items **bold** or _italic_ with just a few simple characters, I felt like I had finally found my text formatting holy grail.
Many years ago I discovered Drafts for iOS, and the idea appealed: you open the application and type. No creating a new file, or trying to decide what to do with the text before the thought is fully formed, just open, type, then decide. I frequently need to jot down notes, save links, and have found being able to write without thinking too much about where the words need to go, and how they're going to get there, is extremely helpful in today's world of constant interruptions.
Last year saw Drafts 5 released for iOS with even more capability than before, allowing you to truly customise it to be the text editor you've always dreamed of having. There was only one small but important snag – no Mac version.
Today there is a Mac app. It is what many of us have been waiting for, albeit with a few missing features at the moment. Drafts for Mac has landed.
Let's get one thing out of the way: you've probably heard of Marzipan, the Apple project to enable iOS developers to bring their applications to the Mac. This is not one of those apps. It is an app written from the ground up for macOS, which works as expected with the system features.
Like the best origin stories, this article comes from humble beginnings. A few weeks ago, I had the idea of adapting my shortcut to save webpage selections from Safari (see Weekly 151, 152, and 153) to make it work with Keep It rather than a JSON file. Simple enough, right? Given a text selection in Safari, I wanted to see if I could create a shortcut to append rich text to an existing document in Keep It without launching the app.
As Club MacStories members know, Keep It is the app I've been using for the past several months to hold my research material, which played an essential role in the making of my iOS 12 review (see Issues 135 and 144) of MacStories Weekly). But then I remembered that Keep It's integration with Shortcuts was limited to URL schemes and that the app did not offer Siri shortcuts to append content to existing notes1. That was the beginning of a note-taking vision quest that culminated in this column, even though I'm not sure I reached the destination I was originally seeking.
After several months of work, I'm pleased to announce the MacStories Shortcuts Archive – the official repository for shortcuts I've created over the years (including when they used to be called "workflows") and which have been updated, tested for the Shortcuts app, and collected in a single place.
You can find the archive at macstories.net/shortcuts. In this first version, the archive contains 150 shortcuts, but more will be posted over time. Each shortcut was created and tested by me and the MacStories team; all of them have been categorized, updated for the Shortcuts app, and marked up with inline comments to explain what they do.
Even better, they're all free to download and you can modify them to suit your needs.
Every few months, I like to use Twitter's official app for iPhone and iPad for a while and reassess its advantages over third-party clients, as well as its shortcomings. This is something I've been doing for several years now. While I've often come away unimpressed with Twitter's native offerings, switching back to Tweetbot or Twitterrific after a couple of days, it's been a week since I started using the official Twitter app on my iPhone and iPad again and I don't find myself craving Tweetbot's UI design or timeline as much as I thought I would.
iPad Diaries is a regular series about using the iPad as a primary computer. You can find more installments here and subscribe to the dedicated RSS feed.
After several years without updates to a product that, somewhat oddly, "remained in Apple's lineup", the Mac mini was revived by the company last November with a major redesign geared toward pro users and designed for flexibility. As listeners of Connected know, one of the show's long-running jokes was that I would buy my last Mac ever as soon as Apple released a new Mac mini1; when it happened, I took the opportunity to completely rethink my home office with a new desk, well-specced Mac mini, and 4K display that supported both modern Macs and iPad Pros via USB-C.
Effectively, I had never owned a desktop Mac until2 this Mac mini arrived. I always preferred portable Macs to workstations, and over the years I moved from a late 2008 MacBook Pro to a 2011 MacBook Air and, in 2015, back to the (now Retina) MacBook Pro again. Over the past couple of years, however, and particularly since the introduction of iOS 11, my penchant for Mac laptops started clashing with the realization that the iPad Pro had become my de-facto laptop. I was using a MacBook Pro because I thought I needed a portable Mac machine just like when I started MacStories in 2009; in reality, the iPad had been chipping away at the MacBook's core tasks for a while. Eventually, I saw how my MacBook Pro had become a computer I'd open twice a week to record podcasts, and nothing more.
With the iPad Pro as my primary computer, the Mac's role in my life evolved into a fixed environment that was necessary for multi-track audio recording and Plex Media Server. And as I shared on Connected on several occasions, I realized that my workflow in 2018 wasn't the same as 2009 anymore: it no longer made sense for me to have a Mac laptop when what I really needed was a small, but powerful and extensible Mac desktop. That's why I started waiting for a new Mac mini, and my wishes were granted with the 2018 relaunch of the mighty desktop machine.
For the past three months, I've been busy setting up the Mac mini and optimizing it for the tasks that inspired its purchase. I bought external SSD drives (thesetwo) to use for Plex and Time Machine backups; I set up a homebridge server to add unsupported accessories to HomeKit (such as our 2017 LG TV) and turn iTunes playlists into HomeKit scenes; I rethought my podcasting setup (I now have a Zoom H6 recorder and a taller microphone stand) and arranged my desk to make it easier to use the same UltraFine 4K display with the Mac mini and iPad Pro (I just need to plug in a different USB-C cable). Because this Mac mini is fast enough to handle 4K transcoding for Plex without breaking a sweat, I started using youtube-dl to enjoy 4K YouTube videos on iOS devices with the Infuse or Plex apps. I'm trying to take advantage of a powerful, always-on Mac server in any way I can, and I'm having lots of fun doing it.
This doesn't change the fact that the iPad Pro is my main computer, and that I want to interact with macOS as little as possible. Aside from recording podcasts using Mac apps, I rely on the Mac mini as a server that performs tasks or provides media in the background. Any server requires a front-end interface to access and manage it; in my case, that meant finding apps, creating shortcuts, and setting up workflows on my iPad Pro to access, manage, and use the Mac mini from iOS without having to physically sit down in front of it.
In this multi-part series, I'm going to cover how I'm using the 2018 iPad Pro to access my Mac mini both locally and remotely, the apps I employ for file management, the custom shortcuts I set up to execute macOS commands from iOS and the HomePod, various automations I created via AppleScript and Keyboard Maestro, and more. Let's dive in.
It was funny because everybody thought the Mac mini line was done. ↩︎
Many years ago, I did use an iMac for a few months. However, I never considered that machine truly mine – it was set up at my parents' house (where it now sits unused) and I worked on it for a while until I moved in with my girlfriend a few months later. ↩︎