Thursday, March 23, 2017 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Apple Acquires Workflow

Matthew Panzarino (tweet, MacRumors, Hacker News):

Apple has finalized a deal to acquire Workflow today — a tool that lets you hook together apps and functions within apps in strings of commands to automate tasks.

[…]

Workflow the app is being acquired, along with the team of Weinstein, Conrad Kramer, Ayaka Nonaka and Nick Frey. In a somewhat uncommon move for Apple, the app will continue to be made available on the App Store and will be made free later today.

[…]

Apple confirmed the deal, and has said the following about Workflow:

“The Workflow app was selected for an Apple Design Award in 2015 because of its 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.”

It sounds like Apple was more keen on the accessibility than the automation.

Federico Viticci (tweet):

Workflow doesn’t need an introduction on this website. I’ve been covering the app since its debut in 2014, and have been following every update until the last major version, which brought the fantastic addition of Magic Variables. You can catch up on over two years of Workflow reporting and tutorials here, and access even more advanced workflows in our dedicated section on the Club MacStories newsletter.

At this stage, it’s not clear what Apple’s plans for Workflow in the long term might be. I have a few theories, but this isn’t the time to speculate. I’ll say this, though: Workflow has been the driving force behind my decision to embrace the iPad as my primary computer. Workflow is a shining example of the power of automation combined with user creativity and its underlying mission has always been clear: to allow anyone to improve how iOS can get things done for them in a better, faster, more flexible way. Workflow is the modern bicycle for the mind. There’s nothing else like it.

John Gruber:

This certainly provides ammunition against the argument that Apple no longer cares about power users. For me this is Apple’s most intriguing and exciting acquisition in years.

[…]

Doing things the iOS way via Workflow looks cool, but whenever it comes down to it, it always feels easier to me to just wait until I’m at a Mac and create it there.

The other way of looking at this is that perhaps it’s a sign that (a) Apple’s internal efforts are not as far along as we’d hope, and (b) that their plans for automation are more like Automator than supporting a language with inter-process communication. They may want to replace AppleScript on the Mac with something more limited, which would be unfortunate.

Stephen Hackett:

I have a million questions, many hopes and quite a few fears about this.

Michael:

The small, abused optimist in my brain hopes this will turn out as successful as Siri or TestFlight, but the pragmatist is afraid my most productive app on iOS is dead.

David Sparks:

There was another innovative application on the iPhone years ago that Apple purchased called Siri. Once they bought it, the pace of innovation slowed down and while it’s great that the Siri got incorporated into the operating system, there’s a lot of us that still miss the old version that had some crazy new innovative feature with each update. I think there’s a legitimate concern that Apple will do the same with Workflow.

[…]

If, however, Apple absorbs Workflow into the operating system with the intention of bringing real power user tools to iPhone and iPad users, I believe they could go even further than the current third-party version of Workflow. Imagine if Apple created APIs that allowed any app to tap into Workflow’s automation tools. Imagine if we could string together automation steps that allow users to press one button and have five different applications lend a hand to getting work done.

Khoi Vinh:

Unlike many Apple acquisitions, this one was not just a deal for the Workflow team but for the app itself too, which signals that Apple sees value in the product.

[…]

It now seems apparent that Apple intends to make iOS itself more open to Workflow-style automation, not less, and that’s a good thing. The kind of customization that Workflow allows is critical for the iPad, particularly, if it’s to become a true productivity platform.

[…]

When you look at competitors like Amazon’s Alexa platform, Google Assistant, Cortana, etc., they all lack a truly elegant, easy-to-master entryway for casual users who want to customize their experiences—and that’s exactly what Workflow gives Apple. (Though don’t be surprised if these other players acquire Zapier or IFTTT soon as well.)

Guy English:

This is terrific! Congratulations all! We interviewed the Workflow cats a while ago. You can listen to it here.

Gabe Weatherhead:

That doesn’t sound like a company that’s [aggressively] pursuing automation on iOS. [Accessibility] is still a wonderful, and arguably much more important, goal for Apple, but I don’t think it’s a positive move for the people that love the app. Unlike [Panzarino], I think this is bad news for anyone that relies on Workflow to make iOS useful. If all your eggs are in that one basket then you better hurry up and build a new basket. I’d love to be wrong on this front, but I don’t think automation is a priority for Apple or for iOS. The URL support isn’t just languishing on iOS, Apple has actively killed access to some [features] in launcher apps.

Nick Lockwood:

I see Apple’s acquisition of Workflow as further reinforcement of their message that 3rd party extensions of the platform are not welcome.

Most devs who try to build tools to expand the capabilities of iOS get shut down. The ones that don’t get acquired so Apple can control them.

Dr. Drang:

The big question: to incorporate it or to kill it?

Jason Snell:

I’m going to be positive and say that this is Apple acknowledging that this sort of functionality should be core to iOS, and that Workflow (or a successor) could be vastly more powerful if it’s given more power and control than any third-party app ever could. You could, in fact, argue that Workflow is the iOS app that Apple should’ve built itself, but didn’t.

Matt Birchler:

Can you imagine what Workflow could do if it had full access to the OS? I have high hopes for this move 🤞

Ole Zorn:

I hope the @WorkflowHQ acquisition leads to better automation infrastructure on iOS, and not just one privileged app, controlled by Apple.

Michael Rockwell:

I’m not worried about @WorkflowHQ going away, but I am worried about some of their actions that integrate with third-parties disappearing.

Rui Carmo:

Update: and the first post-acquisition update is already out, axing support for Pocket and Google Maps (two of the things I used with it), among others.

One can only hope that Apple has better plans for it than subsuming it and watering it down – at least they’re making it free, but I would very much like to see it evolve into something even more powerful under Apple stewardship, rather than languishing into obscurity…

Trevor Kay:

Lol didn’t take Apple long.

Ryan Burnett:

“Workflow Gallery submissions are no longer supported” 🙁

Marco Arment:

Don’t blame Workflow or Apple for removing Google, etc. actions in last night’s Workflow update.

It was lawyers, not strategy.

A few weeks ago, Workflow asked all supported apps to sign a simple 1-page contract confirming permission to call our URL schemes.

People sue Apple over ANYTHING, ALL THE TIME, so it makes sense for their lawyers to be overly cautious like this in an acquisition.

Steve Mops:

You still can provide honest release notes when you remove functionality.

Previously: Thank You, Sal.

Update (2017-03-24): See also: Accidental Tech Podcast.

Update (2017-03-28): Josh Centers:

One big question about an automation scheme based on app extensions and a Workflow front end is just how powerful it could be. Could it compare to what can be achieved with Automator and AppleScript on the Mac, or would it be closer to Workflow’s current limits?

Update (2017-03-30): Federico Viticci:

Below, you'll find two possible scenarios for Workflow as an Apple app, as well as some considerations on how Apple could evolve Workflow into a native feature of iOS devices and a new developer platform.

Update (2017-04-04): David Sparks:

I agree with Craig Federighi that automation and scripting is “super important” but I’d also remind him that if that is the case, we need more than words right now. WWDC is just a few months away and it sure would be nice to see that Apple is moving the ball forward for automation and scripting.

Update (2017-04-12): Accidental Tech Podcast reports that Workflow Support is telling customers that there will be no further updates to the app.

Update (2017-04-14): Benjamin Mayo:

In the email reply iGeneration shared with 9to5Mac, the Workflow representative left little room for ambiguity. No new features are coming to the app (including no new updates to the gallery of pre-built workflows to choose from).

3 Comments

It's a bit muddy and I'm not sure I entirely understand it either but my vision of the future for users is this:

At the moment on our desktop computers we make work processes out of windows, and files. This arose historically, of course.

In the glorious iOS future, we'll make processes out of apps and tasks, and I think Workflow indicates this, although it might be considered very primitive in hindsight. Apps and tasks. Two sides of the same coin for the user.

It all relies on the right kind and quality of apps and tasks being available, of course, and that indicates the primacy not only of good software but of companies like Apple who have the creativity mixed in there too. Creating the right kind of tasks requires empathy and true understanding. It really is Apple's future for the taking.

I'll be guardedly optimistic. I use Workflow up & down for much the same thing I use Automator for: one-off workflows to do this n that.

Maybe Apple will take some of the ideas from Workflow and put them in Automator and vice versa?

It would have been nice if Apple had retained Sal to shepherd the Workflow kids if that, in fact is what they want to do. Automator (and Workflow) are great tools for norms who don't want to get into explicit scripting & just want to use "Duplo" or visual blocks.

I don't get the "Accessibilty" thing. Apple is already quite good at Accessibility. I'm guessing there will be a plugin SDK and 3rd party vendors who want Workflow integration will be coding it themseives. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Left my comments over on the Ars article.

Basically, I went through a period about a decade ago of thinking "visual programming" like MIT's Scratch was the answer to making coding accessible and easy to non-programmers. Then I started creating my own end-user languages, read Papert, and figured out that since the written word has been successfully building civilizations for the last 10,000 years, it wasn't the choice of medium but the particular delivery that was the real problem.

And since it's trivial to map a homoiconic text-based language to visual form representations, it makes far more sense to start with text (which is also your serialization format for file storage and exchange) and build up from there, rather than start with GUI blocks which can build neither up nor down. See also essential vs accidental complexity.

The only other thing I'd say is that URL munging stinks worse'n Satan's own arsehole.

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