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A deep dive into iOS 8 extensions: It's all about new workflows

Ryan Faas | Sept. 18, 2014
Extensions are one of the biggest new features in iOS 8. They allow apps to communicate and share data with each other in ways that haven't been possible in previous iOS versions while at the same time maintaining the app sandboxing functionality that is a core component of iOS security.

This makes it much easier to review, edit, or manipulate content with a variety of apps, each of which may have its own functionality or user interface advantages, than ever before on iOS. With iOS 7 and earlier, users had to wonder if it was even possible to send or copy/paste data from one app to another, and then, if it is possible, had to create multiple versions of each document or file in each app used. These new iOS 8 extensions will allow users to interact with documents, files, or content in much the same way that they can on a PC or Mac.

This reduces data sprawl, and makes it possible for the first time in iOS to develop true multi-app workflows. Custom Action extensions extend and simplify those workflows by giving users easy access to predefined series of actions or tasks that can automated. Sharing extensions then make it possible to share data directly from within apps in ways that previously required sending completed or in-progress work from the last used app to apps dedicated solely to accessing a particular kind of service, be it a social network, email, or other service.

This has the potential to revolutionize mobile workflows. Although it will still mean using multiple iOS apps to replicate the functionality often available in a single desktop app, the process will be significantly streamlined and allow data to flow much more freely and naturally in many of the ways that users are used to working in Windows, OS X, or even Chrome OS. As the range of apps supporting extensions grows, iOS 8 devices will become full -ledged productivity solutions that can perform many tasks with the same ease we associated today with the desktop.

For enterprise IT and enterprise app developers, this opens up significant opportunities. It will allow traditional enterprise applications to be transferred in a logical and appropriate way to mobile devices. Rather than completely recreating a single monolithic desktop app on an iOS device, the core tasks of that app can be broken up into small individual apps, each focusing on specific areas of need. Extensions can be used to link these mobile apps together if and when needed. It also allows a new concept of role-based access for enterprise apps, because rather than excluding functionality from each user, users can simply be assigned the apps that they need to use.

As MobileIron's Vice President of Strategy Ojas Rege put it to me during a recent conversation, this will allow the breaking down of internal business applications from monolithic apps into "multiple atomic apps." That concept isn't entirely new since "apps were always atomic, focused," but "now they're linked together." That link makes it truly possible to move heavy traditional enterprise computing to iOS in a consistent and accessible way.


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