Ap­ple’s ac­qui­si­tion of Work­flow could bring au­to­ma­tion to iOS

Dan Moren hopes Ap­ple’s doesn’t plan to shut down the most pow­er­ful au­to­ma­tion tool for the iPhone and iPad

iPad&iPhone user - - NEWS -

After the re­cent news that Ap­ple had ac­quired iOS power user app Work­flow, you’d be ex­cused for be­ing a bit con­fused about the fu­ture of au­to­ma­tion on Ap­ple’s plat­form. After all, it was just last Novem­ber that Sal Soghoian, Ap­ple’s prod­uct man­ager

of au­to­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies, left the com­pany when his po­si­tion was elim­i­nated.

And yet, Ap­ple snapped up Work­flow, an app that many had com­pared to Ap­ple’s own Au­toma­tor, which was in­tro­duced way back in 2005’s Mac OS X Tiger. So what gives? Is there still some life in au­to­ma­tion and script­ing fea­tures on Ap­ple’s plat­forms, or is this merely a case of Ap­ple ac­quir­ing use­ful tal­ent? Fol­low the script Script­ing’s been part of the Mac since the ear­li­est days. Ap­pleScript, which grew out of Hyper­Card’s Hyper­Talk script­ing lan­guage, was built into Sys­tem 7 back in 1993. It was a way to au­to­mate com­plex tasks across mul­ti­ple ap­pli­ca­tions, and it had a lot of power thanks not only to its deep in­te­gra­tion into the OS, but also to third-party de­vel­op­ers who made their apps ad­dress­able by the script­ing lan­guage.

But for all its power, Ap­pleScript has al­ways been a bit es­o­teric. While it was in­tended to be ac­ces­si­ble and used a sort of nat­u­ral English syn­tax, it was of­ten still too com­plex for the aver­age user. On the other end, those used to more tra­di­tional pro­gram­ming lan­guages found its idio­syn­cra­sies equally baf­fling.

When Ap­pleScript found its way into OS X – if anec­do­tal ac­counts are to be be­lieved, al­most en­tirely thanks to the willpower of Soghoian – it laid the groundwork for Au­toma­tor, a graph­i­cal and more user-friendly at­tempt to han­dle the kind of tasks Ap­pleScript had. But Au­toma­tor never quite man­aged to live up to its po­ten­tial. In many cases, one had to fall back on Ap­pleScript or UNIX shell scripts to ac­com­plish some func­tions, and its

graph­i­cal in­ter­face still wasn’t enough make it friendly to most main­stream users.

But as com­put­ers be­came more ma­ture and pow­er­ful, there wasn’t al­ways the same need for au­to­ma­tion and script­ing as there had been back in the early days when many users needed to also be part pro­gram­mer to get things done. Many tasks that had once been au­to­mated could now be han­dled by ap­pli­ca­tions cre­ated by Ap­ple or third par­ties. Though both Ap­pleScript and Au­to­ma­tion stuck around in sub­se­quent re­leases of OS X, nei­ther got any real at­ten­tion from Ap­ple.

Work­flow on iOS

A few years after Au­to­ma­tion’s in­tro­duc­tion, the iPhone showed up with no au­to­ma­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties what­so­ever. Though many parts of OS X made the jump to the plat­form, Ap­pleScript and Au­toma­tor were left be­hind. Al­most 10 years later, that sit­u­a­tion hasn’t changed. It was just in 2014 that apps even got the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with one another.

En­ter Work­flow, an app that is, on the sur­face, very sim­i­lar to Au­toma­tor, pro­vid­ing a graph­i­cal in­ter­face with which to au­to­mate com­plex tasks across apps and ser­vices. But the kicker is that it pulled all this func­tion­al­ity off with­out Ap­ple’s help.

While some have em­braced Work­flow’s power, it’s suf­fered from the same chal­lenges that Au­toma­tor has en­coun­tered on the Mac. Most users ei­ther don’t have or haven’t iden­ti­fied a need for au­to­ma­tion, and for the frac­tion that have, only another frac­tion go through the trou­ble of find­ing and learning to use a tool like Work­flow.

Will the fu­ture be au­to­mated?

All of which makes Ap­ple’s ac­qui­si­tion of Work­flow even more puz­zling. The easy an­swer, of course, is that Ap­ple was im­pressed with the re­source­ful­ness of the de­vel­op­ment team and wanted to hire them. In the long term, that will prob­a­bly mean shut­ting down Work­flow.

I’m not con­vinced, though, in part be­cause Work­flow pro­vides use­ful fea­tures that aren’t avail­able any­where else. (And Ap­ple’s first move was to make the app free, which could be a sign they plan to keep it around.) That could be a com­pelling enough ar­gu­ment for Ap­ple to make use of the app’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties it­self. Why rein­vent the wheel if the com­pany is in­ter­ested in bring­ing au­to­ma­tion to iOS?

It should be. Even with the ad­di­tion of app ex­ten­sions in iOS 8, in­ter-app com­mu­ni­ca­tion has re­mained a weak point. Why not bring Work­flow to the Mac? Well maybe be­cause at its more ma­ture age, it isn’t cry­ing out for au­to­ma­tion in the same way. Ap­pleScript and Au­toma­tor are still there, after all, and while they might not get more use­ful as time goes by, nei­ther has their func­tion­al­ity been snatched away.

But let’s face it: iOS and the iPhone are the most prom­i­nent part of Ap­ple’s iden­tity and what hap­pens there sets the tone for the com­pany. The com­pany wants its prod­ucts to get more pow­er­ful and use­ful, and Work­flow’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties may be one way to do that.

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