The Case For and Against Apple’s Purchase of Workflow

There was a bit of surprising news today out of TechCrunch from Matthew Panzarino. It looks like Apple bought Workflow, which is–in my opinion–the single most useful utility application on the iPhone or iPad. I love Workflow so much that I made a MacSparky Video Field Guide about it.

Workflow is an application that allows you to glue together other applications on iOS and create automated tasks. For instance, I use a Workflow recipe to automatically date and file PDF documents on my iPad. Once I figured it out, the process is actually faster on my iPad then it is on my Mac.

I once made a joke on Mac Power Users that the only reason Workflow got approved was because someone must have naked pictures of somebody important at Apple. The application seemed just so contrary to Apple’s general position of iOS simplicity. (Not that I’m complaining.) Over the years, the Workflow team has continued to innovate with this application, adding new features often and allowing us to automate work on the iPad and iPhone that we only dreamed about just a few years ago.

Frankly, I’m mixed about the idea of Apple purchasing Workflow:

The Case against It

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. They could simplify it and incorporate Workflow into the operating system so everybody has a bit more automation but nobody has the vast library of options Workflow currently offers. We certainly aren’t going to get the frequent updates once Apple takes the reins.

The Case for It

In a lot of ways, it feels to me like Workflow is held together by chewing gum and rubber bands. The Workflow developers have (brilliantly) taken advantage of every little toe hold in iOS that allows them to move data between applications. They do things with URL callbacks that make your head spin. All that being said, there are inherent limitations as to how far Workflow can go as an external application outside of Apple.

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. Once (if?) Workflow gets inside the iOS security sandbox and becomes an integrated Apple product, Workflow could become much more powerful. These are exactly the kinds of power tools for iOS I’ve been yammering about lately on this blog.

One promising note is that it appears the members of the Workflow team are taking jobs at Apple where they will continue to press for iOS automation from inside the mothership. I wish them much success.

Holding Our Breath

For now all we can do is wait and see. If you haven’t tried Workflow yet, shame on you. The application is now free so you have no excuse not to go download it and give it a shot. Spend a few minutes in Workflow and you will find ways to save time on your iPhone and iPad.