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Posts tagged with "workflow"

Shortcuts: A New Vision for Siri and iOS Automation

In my Future of Workflow article from last year (published soon after the news of Apple's acquisition), I outlined some of the probable outcomes for the app. The more optimistic one – the "best timeline", so to speak – envisioned an updated Workflow app as a native iOS automation layer, deeply integrated with the system and its built-in frameworks. After studying Apple's announcements at WWDC and talking to developers at the conference, and based on other details I've been personally hearing about Shortcuts while at WWDC, it appears that the brightest scenario is indeed coming true in a matter of months.

On the surface, Shortcuts the app looks like the full-blown Workflow replacement heavy users of the app have been wishfully imagining for the past year. But there is more going on with Shortcuts than the app alone. Shortcuts the feature, in fact, reveals a fascinating twofold strategy: on one hand, Apple hopes to accelerate third-party Siri integrations by leveraging existing APIs as well as enabling the creation of custom SiriKit Intents; on the other, the company is advancing a new vision of automation through the lens of Siri and proactive assistance from which everyone – not just power users – can reap the benefits.

While it's still too early to comment on the long-term impact of Shortcuts, I can at least attempt to understand the potential of this new technology. In this article, I'll try to explain the differences between Siri shortcuts and the Shortcuts app, as well as answering some common questions about how much Shortcuts borrows from the original Workflow app. Let's dig in.

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How One Apple Programmer Got Apps Talking to Each Other

With WWDC around the corner and speculation continuing about why Apple purchased Workflow a little over a year ago, Wired has published a profile of Sal Soghoian, who worked on Automator at Apple until 2016. The feature piece, also covers the development of x-callback-urls on iOS and the introduction Workflow, which was acquired by Apple in 2017.

As Wired explains:

Soghoian is a guy who's built a long career creating technology that lets users hand the tedium of repetitive grunt work off to their computers in creative ways. In the early 2000s, he created a program that let Mac users turn clunky, multi-step tasks into something that could be run at any time with just a double click of the mouse. This process, and the field where Soghoian's excels, is known as PC automation. Nearly a decade after the original Automator app arrived on the Mac, a group of hungry iOS developers were inspired to hard-code a way for apps to share information between each other. The creation, which built upon Soghian's [sic] work, made iOS more elegant and useful.

Since leaving Apple, Soghoian’s automation work has continued at The Omni Group where he works on a JavaScript-based automation scheme for the company’s apps. Soghoian has also written about automation and created a conference on the topic.

Automation has a long history at Apple. However, in the 18 months or so since Soghoian left Apple and roughly one year since the company acquired Workflow, Apple has been relatively quiet about automation. One of my hopes for WWDC this year is that we start to see signs of why Apple acquired Workflow and its team of talented developers that include the incorporation of some of their automation work into iOS and macOS.

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How to Adjust iOS’ Volume via Workflow When Streaming Audio to HomePod

One of Workflow's least known functionalities is its ability to get details about the hardware it's running on and control some system features. Among these, Workflow can both retrieve an iOS device's current volume level and set the volume. A few days ago, I realized I could make a workflow to quickly adjust my iPhone's volume when streaming music to one of our HomePods. Unlike other automations I've crafted over the years, this workflow was quite a success in our household and I felt like it was worth sharing with the wider MacStories audience.

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Workflow 1.7.8 Adds ‘Mask Image’ Action, Things Automation Support, PDF Text Extraction, and More

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.

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Things Automation: Building a “Natural Language” Parser in Workflow

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.

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Things 3.4 Brings Powerful New Automation Features and App Integrations

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.

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Workflow Update Restores Google Chrome and Pocket Actions, Extends Apple Music Integration

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.

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Prizmo Go Review: Smarter OCR with the iPhone’s Camera

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.

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