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Workflow for iOS review: An awesome Mac-like app for our post-PC devices

Michael Simon | Dec. 17, 2014
Our iOS devices aren't built for efficiency. Unlike OS X, where we can simultaneously work in multiple apps and position windows and folders on our desktops for optimal output, iOS has a far greater focus on individual tasks. Even accomplishing something as simple as copying text from Safari and pasting it into a note requires a set series of steps and hoops, and any kind of real multitasking is hampered by the safeguards Apple has built into the system.

Our iOS devices aren't built for efficiency. Unlike OS X, where we can simultaneously work in multiple apps and position windows and folders on our desktops for optimal output, iOS has a far greater focus on individual tasks. Even accomplishing something as simple as copying text from Safari and pasting it into a note requires a set series of steps and hoops, and any kind of real multitasking is hampered by the safeguards Apple has built into the system.

iOS 8 has begun to alter this line of thinking. Instead of creating isolated islands, developers are now able to build bridges to nearby apps, eliminating the clunky workarounds that they were previously forced to implement. From widgets to extensions, iOS is suddenly alive with expandability and customization.

And now we have an app that brings it all together. The first true automator for iOS, Workflow ($3) takes full advantage of Apple's looser restrictions on sharing to bring new levels of interactivity and multitasking to our handheld devices. More versatile than the situational IFTTT and more powerful than even Launch Center Pro's slick system of shortcuts, Workflow's endlessly customizable actions integrate seamlessly into the apps you already use to help you work smarter, faster, and just plain better. 

There's a delightful simplicity to Workflow's interface that belies its abilities. A quick tutorial walks you through building an automatic GIF maker, and as you set up each step, you'll notice that the app brings over another element of OS X that is foreign to the iPhone and iPad: drag and drop.   It makes the creation of workflows an absolute pleasure and serves to eliminate much of the requisite knowledge needed to set up proper shortcuts. Where other automating apps rely on the user's know-how of Python scripting or URL schemes to accomplish anything beyond the most rudimentary of tasks, Workflow has created a custom iOS framework that does most of the heavy lifting behind the scenes. It's all a bit like an iOS version of Automator, and the finished products are not unlike OS X's "automation recipes." 

Take actions

Developer DeskConnect has loaded the app with more than 100 common actions that can be stacked and sorted in any number of ways. Things like Quick Look, Add New Event, and Send Email work together to create step-by-step processes designed to simplify and streamline the things we would otherwise turn to the multitasking carousel to accomplish. Each action contains a plain explanation of what it does, but you'll learn better by seeing them at work; as you mix and match actions, pressing the "run" button will show you how they work together, and the natural quickness and intuition of the interface encourages somewhat obsessive testing. There's no limit to how much a workflow can do, and you can rearrange and combine actions to accomplish a whole string of tasks; for example, you can effortlessly make a workflow that collects your last five photos, zips them, uploads them to Dropbox, and emails you a link.

 

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