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Posts tagged with "iOS"

Workflow 1.5: App Store Automation, Trello and Ulysses Actions, Audio Metadata, Safari View Controller, and More

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.

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On the Limitations of iOS Custom Keyboards

Somewhat buried in a good Verge piece on iOS custom keyboards is a reiteration by Apple on why they don't allow dictation for third-party keyboards:

Apple has long been a stalwart for erring on the side of caution when it comes to keeping your data private and asking you to make sure you know you’re sharing something. The company’s policy is to not allow microphone access for extensions (like these keyboards) because iOS has no way to make it clear that the phone is listening. Giving third-party keyboards access to the microphone could allow nefarious apps to listen in on users without their knowledge, an Apple spokesperson says.

As far as I know, it's not just custom keyboards: no kind of app extension can access the microphone on iOS (plus other APIs). This has been the case since 2014 and it appears Apple still thinks the privacy trade-off would be too risky.

The principle doesn't surprise me; at a practical level, though, wouldn't it be possible to enable dictation1 in third-party keyboards by coloring the status bar differently when the microphone is listening?

I also have to wonder if, two years into custom keyboards, it would be time for Apple to lift some of their other keyboard restrictions. To recap, this is what custom keyboards on iOS can't do:

  • Access the system settings of Auto-Capitalization, Enable Caps Lock, and dictionary reset feature
  • Type into secure text input objects (password fields)
  • Type into phone pad objects (phone dialer UIs)
  • Access selected text
  • Access the device microphone
  • Use the system keyboard switching popup

Aside from microphone access, secure input fields, and phone pad objects, I'd like to see Apple add support for everything else in iOS 10. More importantly, I'd like to see their performance improve. Here's an example: when you swipe down from the Home screen to open Spotlight, Apple's keyboard comes up with a soft transition that's pleasing on the eye; if you do the same with a custom keyboard, the transition is always jarring, and it often doesn't work at all.2

I struggle to understand the position of those who call custom keyboards "keyloggers" because, frankly, that's a discussion we should have had two years ago, not as soon as Google launches a custom keyboard. Since 2014, hundreds of companies (including Microsoft and Giphy) have released custom keyboards, each theoretically capable of "logging" what you type. That ship has sailed. Apple has featured Microsoft's Word Flow on the front page of the App Store and the entire Utilities category is essentially dominated by custom keyboards (and has been for a while). Every few weeks, a new type of "-moji" celebrity keyboard comes out and sits at the top of the Top Paid charts.

I think it's very unlikely Apple is going to backtrack on custom keyboards at this point. It's not just Google – clearly, people find custom keyboards useful, and Apple is happy enough to promote them.3

The way we communicate and work on iOS has grown beyond typing. Despite their limitations, custom keyboards have shown remarkable innovations over the past two years. With more privacy controls and some API improvements by Apple, they have the potential to work better and look nicer going forward.


  1. Not necessarily via Siri, so Google could use their own dictation engine in Gboard, for instance. ↩︎
  2. I've had multiple instances of iOS being "stuck", unable to load a custom keyboard or switch back to the Apple one. ↩︎
  3. Unless, of course, it's Gboard, which got no feature whatsoever this week, though it's currently the #1 Free app in the US App Store. ↩︎

With Launcher 2.0, I’m Rethinking My Notification Center Widgets

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.

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SketchParty TV 4.0 with New Look, Improved Gameplay

When my family gets together, we like to play games. One game has been a mainstay of our gatherings for the last four years: SketchParty TV.

SketchParty TV is a multiplayer game similar to Pictionary which uses an iOS device as the marker and your Apple TV-connected television as the drawing board. If you have a 2nd or 3rd-gen Apple TV, you can use the iOS version with AirPlay Mirroring. For 4th-gen Apple TV owners, there's a native Apple TV app that connects to the iOS version.

The 4.0 update to SketchParty TV is a big one, with a visual overhaul for iOS 9+, a redesigned canvas, updated scoring system with speed-based rewards, and full support for the Apple Pencil on iPad Pro devices.

The Team Setup interface was always usable, but it got a lot of special attention in this update. In addition to improved word list settings, entry of team members is easier and now you can drag to reorder and even switch between teams.

If you own a compatible iOS device and a 2nd-gen or higher Apple TV, SketchParty is an excellent game for friends and family gatherings. Right now it's on sale, too, for $5.99 (normally $9.99). Check it out in the iTunes App Store.


Emojinn Emoji Finder and Keyboard

Emoji can be hard to find from the iOS system keyboard. Although they have official names, emoji aren't accessible by those names from Apple's keyboard. Instead, if an emoji isn't in your frequently used, you are left with the task of remembering or guessing which category it falls into to find it. The trouble is, the groupings aren't that intuitive. Here's a test: Which category is sunglasses in? Objects or People?1Emojinn is a useful little utility that makes it easier to find the emoji you want without memorizing where they are.

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OmniFocus for iOS Adds Deep Automation Features

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.

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Capture Your Own GIFs with Gifstory

Gifstory makes capturing your own GIFs easy by imposing constraints. One of the difficulties with GIFs is that there are lots of variables that impact how big they are and how good they look. I like GIF Brewery on the Mac, but it is easy to get caught up in tweaking those variables endlessly, trying to get a GIF that looks perfect. Gifstory, which is iPhone-only, eliminates the fiddling by imposing limits that work. Point your camera at something, press and hold the capture button, and you can capture a 320 × 426 or 320 x 320 GIF up to sixty frames long.

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Drafts Releases MacSparky Screencasts

Agile Tortoise has teamed up with David Sparks of MacSparky.com to produce a series of screencasts introducing Drafts 4 to new users and highlighting some of its features. The first two screencasts were released today. The first video is an overview of how Drafts works, and some of the things you can accomplish with it. The second video focuses on using Drafts with Dropbox to save text as a separate file in Dropbox or append text to an existing text file.

David Sparks, who has made screencasts for companies like The Omni Group and Smile Software, does a great job of showing how easy it is to get started with Drafts, but also exposing some of the powerful ways Drafts can interact with other apps like Dropbox.

You can watch the first two Drafts videos below.

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Microsoft Brings Another Keyboard to iOS

Microsoft is on a roll with iOS keyboards. Just over two weeks ago, Microsoft’s Garage project released Hub, which has tight integrations with Office 365. Today, Microsoft Garage released another keyboard called Word Flow, which is based on the Windows Phone keyboard from Windows Phone 8.1. According to The Verge, Microsoft had promised a public beta period for Word Flow, but skipped that step.

There are multiple options for interacting with Word Flow. Once installed, you can use it in one-handed mode where the keyboard can be displayed in an arc on the left or right side of the keyboard area. Alternatively, you can use a traditional keyboard layout.

In either case, Word Flow accepts both swiping and tapping input and has a strong predictive algorithm that anticipates the words you intend to type. In my limited tests, the one-handed mode was helpful for typing on my iPhone 6s Plus one handed and the predictive input was solid, though it didn’t seem to recognize its own name, failing to capitalize ‘flow’ in the screenshots above. Of course, for the predictive feature to work, you need to grant Word Flow full access to your keyboard input, which not everyone will be comfortable doing.

Word Flow also lets you set backgrounds behind your keyboard, including ones that are built into the app or your own photos. Personally, I think the backgrounds are ugly and distracting, but fortunately you can use Word Flow without a background.

Microsoft Word Flow is available on the App Store for free.

Update: Microsoft Word Flow is a US English keyboard and is only available in the US App Store.