Is iOS app integration good enough yet? Thoughts on Apple’s Workflow acquisition.

Inter-app communication is one way Apple seems to be positioning iPads as a laptop replacement while keeping them distinct from MacBooks

Have you heard about Apple’s latest acquisition? Just a few weeks ago they bought Workflow, a scripting app for iOS. We’re left wondering what Apple’s plans are, but this is also part of a larger conversation about app integration and productivity.

Workflow and iOS Scripting

You might think, “Scripting on iOS? It’s so locked down, what can you really do?” But consider all the ways that apps can interact with each other, many of which have come up in just the last few years. Just to name a few, we have:

  • Custom URL schemes, so that apps and web pages can open other apps and start tasks;
  • The “back to app” button, to return to the previous app without tapping the home button;
  • Multiple apps running side-by-side on iPads;
  • Universal Links, to directly associate specific websites with their apps;
  • And most important: Extensions, including Today widgets, document providers, actions for manipulating content, and many more.

Workflow doesn’t have any special privileges (otherwise it wouldn’t make it into the App Store), it simply takes advantage of as many of these app integration techniques as possible. From there, it gives you an interface to build scripts to bring them together, with some flexible and impressive logic built in. Once you’ve created your scripts, it gives you a lot of ways to kick them off, including Today view widgets, action extensions (which often show up on system share sheets), directly from the main page of the workflow app, from Apple Watch extensions, and from the home screen (via web clips). The Workflow app itself has a gallery of pre-made and crowd-sourced scripts (plus there are some third-party galleries), as well as good documentation and tutorials.

As of the acquisition, support for some custom URLs to launch some Google apps was removed, and now word came out that it’s just in maintenance mode. (You can still download and use it, though.)

While this could just be an acqui-hire, hopefully Apple will at least release it as an official Automator for iOS (giving it more elevated privileges would be great), or ideally, use it to power the next level of built-in multitasking improvements.

Mobile productivity

Like I said, there’s a huge conversation about productivity here. As we know, despite the fact that Microsoft, Google, and now Samsung are trying all sorts of form-factor experiments, and despite the fact that Apple is currently marketing the iPad Pro as a laptop replacement for casual users, Apple is staying aloof from much of this experimentation and has no plans for touchscreen MacBooks or phones that turn into desktops.

But the point that I want to make is that iOS inter-app integration has certainly come a long way (and hopefully Workflow will help push it farther.) It used to be that people thought of mobile apps as being insular, single-purpose applications, but clearly this is not the case anymore. (Plus, we haven’t even mentioned all the things that mobile apps can do easily that desktop and many web apps can’t.)

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This is interesting. If this is baked into the OS at some point as "Automator for iOS," I suspect we'll also see the ability to push these scripts or workflows to managed devices.

I'll have to mess with it, but I'm anxious to see what Apple does.