If you want your Apple iPhone to do something new, you usually just head to the App Store and find a pre-made tool get it done. When smartphones came out, that was all you needed — an app for that.
Today you might view a photo attached to a text on your Apple Watch, drag and drop individual files between iCloud folders on your phone, download them to PhotoShop on your Mac to manipulate and recombine them, and re-upload the final versions to the cloud. Life today, in short, is more complicated.
What if you want one app to do something to another app? Say, call an Uber every time you order Seamless for pick-up? Or what if you want one device to do something to another one — like having photos from certain iPhone camera roll folders automatically download to your Mac?
That gets messy. There are few ready-made solutions that meet the Steve Jobs criteria of “three clicks or less.”
Now, Apple is getting back to those roots, said John Feland of consumer experience analytics firm Argus Insights.
The App Store took a novel interface — mobile — and simplified the portal connecting phones to the internet. Apple’s newest acquisition, Workflow, has the potential to do the same thing on a higher level for the smart home, particularly for voice, by simplifying the way we connect our devices to each other, Feland said.
Workflow is an app that allows you to automate certain actions. (Here’s a guide to how it works.) TechCrunch first reported Apple’s takeover of the app, which Apple said had “outstanding use of iOS accessibility features, in particular an outstanding implementation for VoiceOver with clearly labeled items, thoughtful hints, and drag/drop announcements, making the app usable and quickly accessible to those who are blind or low-vision.”
Apple is tight-lipped, so it’s hard to know exactly what the engineers in Cupertino will come up with — Workflow could easily fade into the background of other products. But Forrester analyst Frank Gillett said it’s unusual for Apple to acknowledge an acquisition and keep an app on the market, suggesting Workflow might stick around.
The software menu for your life
Workflow is somewhat of a visual programming tool that’s easier than writing an app but probably too wonkish for the average consumer. Gillett said Apple might get under the hood, making it easier for every iPhone user to make DIY programs.
But another theory is that a new generation of developers, or “prosumers,” could create “workflows” that act as micro or mini apps, Feland said. The Workflow app would then become a menu or “store” where consumers could go and select sets of commands that were premade by others.
For instance, a Workflow “developer” could create a “Gone Fishing” workflow that automatically locks the doors, turns down the thermostat, and shuts off the lights for the weekend. You open the Workflow app, search for the one you need, and when it’s time to head out, all you have to do is tell Siri, “I’m going fishing.”
That’s important, Feland said, as Siri has “languished” behind competitors like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, who have a more open platform ripe for integration across devices and apps.
Apple has already opened the gate to these kinds of integrations. Siri opened to developers last year, and users can now do things like buy an iTunes movie on one device and continue watching it on another.
Workflow is also important as Apple tries to extend computing experiences beyond your phone, which is increasingly become the “digital hub” that Steve Jobs once envisioned when he dropped “Computer” from the company’s name.
“Some of this is Apple shifting velocity,” Feland said. “Apple is trying to almost make iOS the core operating system that people are using. They are shifting to much more of a model that’s not performance, but it’s about connectivity.”
So just like creating playlists was a heavy burden for the small screen of the iPod in the early 2000s, complex tasks can be overwhelming on a pair of AirPods, a Watch or the augmented reality glasses Apple is rumored to be making.
The solution for the iPod was iTunes on a personal computer — a spread-out interface with plenty of room to create playlists.
In a similar way, Workflow could automate processes that are repetitive or tedious to do on a small screen.
But it could also force developers — Apple’s loyalists — to adapt to a new way of making technology.
“By owning the technology, they are telling developers, this is going to be important so you should support it,” Gillett said.
An Automator for the iPhone
The Workflow acquisition comes after Apple lost Mac automation expert Sal Soghoian in October, a departure that ruffled feathers in the software development community. Soghoian had been critical of using tools like app extensions to replicate the Automator function on Mac.
— Adam Christianson (@maccast) November 17, 2016
“Developers, but also people that are making music and content, were getting frustrated because they are being pushed into a less rich capability set,” Feland said.
But Apple is already grooming the next generation of developers — seeding its new iPads with children’s games to learn Apple’s newest programming language, Swift. Importantly, these games work on touch screens, not Macs.
Tech commentator Jan Dawson notes that Workflow is a “much more user friendly approach to automation than Automator, and what I’d hope we’ll see here is that same approach applied to built-in automation across Apple’s product lines including the Mac.”
Workflow could even create a deeper platform that enables hard-core Apple users to do more serious work from their connected devices. Consider Final Cut Pro — a “pro-sumer” software product that was eventually adopted by serious media professionals.
Still, Gillett thinks it’s “ridiculous” to think we’re anywhere close to an “iPhone Pro” replacing Macs at design schools. He said he thinks there may be more powerful MacBooks and desktop Macs in the pipeline for developers.
“What I think is true is they misjudged emotions of their developers who were disappointed with the latest MacBook Pros,” Gillett said. “I don’t think there’s anyway to make a phone to do development work.”