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Workflow looks to have long future at Apple, but users face short-term changes

Despite the long-term benefits Workflow will reap from Apple's acquisition, existing users have already seen features disappear. AppleInsider assesses the pros and cons of the buy.

Apple's deal with Workflow set into motion a number of changes. The day after news of the purchase broke, the app itself was made free and had an immediate update.

Workflow 1.7.3 was released with the euphemistic words "this update includes compatibility requirements" and a list of a few significant changes.

Apple has removed one of the barriers to people buying Workflow, the iOS automation app: they've made it free. But, it's not as if $2.99 was going to get your bank manager calling concerned about fraud. Making it free lets more users give it a whirl.

That already sounds like Apple — giving the people tools everyone can use. However, what's also very much like Apple is the stripping away of features.

Without delving too deeply into specifics, as that's a big topic for another day, this has all happened before. In the name of a redesign, Apple has in the past abruptly stripped out features that users rely on in favor of ultimately making something easier to use.

Most of the time, those important features do come back. Final Cut Pro X is once again a full professional tool, for instance. However, Pages has yet to regain the outlining feature it lost in 2013 and you'd need to be betting with someone else's money before you put any cash down on when Workflow's features will come back.

This time, what's been affected is chiefly related to Google software or Messages. If your existing workflows don't happen to use those, you won't see a difference. If you're a new user setting out to try Workflow, you'll never even know what you're missing.

Workflow, in a nutshell

What Workflow does is string together a bunch of different apps or services. So, for instance, you can make a Workflow that with one tap asks you what your latest expense is and then saves that data to a list in Evernote. The reason is speed and convenience: set this up once, never have to fiddle with finding where your expenses Evernote note is.

In very much the same way, you used to be able take any audio someone sent you over WhatsApp and have Workflow save it to Dropbox. In this case the reason to do it was that WhatsApp just won't play nice with any other software so you couldn't easily get the audio out of it. For a while there, you could and you could do so easily with a Workflow.

Now you can't because WhatsApp isn't supported by the new version of Workflow.

Similarly, Google Maps and Street View are no longer supported. Again, if you're new, you'll never know that and can just get on with using the nearest equivalent features in Apple Maps. If you already had a workflow that did use Street View, then this is what you see the first time you try to run it:

If you press that Contact Support button, incidentally, iOS just opens Mail with a new message addressed to [email protected].

Workflows run as soon as you tap on their button in the Workflow app, by the way, or in the Today widget but you can also go into one and press the Play button at its top. If you do that now in a workflow using features that are no longer supported, you get the equivalent of, "Seriously, weren't you just listening? Nope."

Other missing elements have to do with the Chrome browser — because it's by Google, naturally — and also the Read It Later app Pocket. Uber is out of luck, and so is Telegram.

Somewhat more people use Google Translate than Telegram, but they now won't hear of it through Workflow. Instead, Workflow now requires you to use Microsoft Translate.

There will be others that we don't know of yet because our own stash of workflows don't happen to use them. Like we've addressed, you can be quite certain that the entirety of Google software and services will no longer be controllable with Workflow but after that it's a bit more pot luck.

Our Evernote workflows still work fine. So do our OmniFocus, Day One, Fantastical, and Dropbox macros. They're all fine and Workflow remains extraordinarily useful across so many apps and services.

For the most part, if you're an existing Workflow user you're most likely to just have to do some fiddling. You make all workflows by dragging options in to a list you're building up so you may have to just drag Apple Maps in rather than Google Maps.

That's not trivial if you have a lot of workflows. It's also far from trivial if your favorite ones relied on services or apps that are no longer supported.

So the cut features are not gigantic as they don't dramatically reduce Workflow's usefulness, and they were predictable. Apple buying Workflow wasn't predicted by anyone, and the speed of the new release meant no one really had time to do any guessing about what would go.

What fans of the software have been guessing about is whether Apple bought Workflow to bring it into iOS or to kill it off. The fact that Apple instantly reworked it to work with iOS apps and services is a sign that it's the former.

We hope so. Workflow seems like an impenetrable app at first, but not entirely because of its complexity. Instead, it takes you a time to think of what you might want it to do. When you've got a need, you'll find Workflow makes sense to you and you will quickly go from one workflow to dozens or hundreds.

Our only wish for Workflow has been that it would work a bit more smoothly. It would be great if you could tap a button to start a workflow and then be able to get on with something else. As it stands, you tap that button and unless you put your iOS device down, you're stuck watching it work through the steps in app.

It's fast enough, but it looks a bit kludgy, a bit ugly, a bit "early iOS app." Workflow always looks like a bit of a workaround lacking a real graphical identity more than those just culled from Xcode defaults.

If Apple were to make it as much a part of iOS as AppleScript is for macOS Sierra, then there could be a truly excellent future for Workflow, and for iOS.