Thoughts on the future of iOS automation

Following Workflow's acquisition by Apple, my thoughts on where (I hope) they might be heading

As the whole iOS world knows, the excellent Workflow App was acquired by Apple last week.

IMHO Workflow is an essential part of using iOS productively, and I’ve already written a couple of times about how I use it.

I’m hoping the acquisition won’t going to turn out badly (although history shows it’s a real possibility), and I’ve been thinking about what Apple’s plans may be - quite possibly wishful thinking.

Current situation with x-callback-url

Many of the automation features in Workflow depend on apps implementing the x-callback-url specification. This method, which piggybacks on the iOS URL Scheme is an elegant hack to solve inter-app communication problems in a way that just aren’t possible using existing iOS extensions.

However, it’s unlikely Apple are happy with this as a long-term solution - in particular x-callback-url has no notion of security and can easily be abused.

Siri intents

Apple are already working towards allowing users to control apps without directly opening them up via Siri.

iOS 10 introduced Siri intents via SiriKit. This allows you to pass commands in pre-defined intents to apps that support them, and allow those apps to response in a structured way.

Clearly this is similar in usage to those functions exposed via x-callback-url.

Apple’s usual deliberate progress means Siri intents are only available in a limited number of domains right now (including VoIP calling, Messaging, Payments, Photos, Workouts, Ride booking).

I’d be shocked if this list isn’t greatly expanded in iOS 11. Hopefully we’ll find out more at WWDC 2017.

Some predictions

1. Workflows will be able to be triggered via Siri

This seems a no-brainer, and a great way of how the existing Workflow app could be greatly improved by being owned by Apple and having access to internal services.

Maybe even by iOS 11?

2. Apple will allow apps to add their own intents

This is definitely more speculative. Apple likes to tightly define what apps can and can’t do, so it feels too early for it to be opened up right now.

Also, for multi-language Siri support - something Apple does much better than Amazon right now - it’s clearly easier to support a smaller set of intents and gradually roll them out as the voice recognition models are trained.

However, if the intents were not just for voice, then there is less reason to restrict developers in this way. If an app could define its own intents for other apps to call them in a standard way, this could cause an explosion of automation opportunities.

I can’t see this happening in iOS 11, but would love to be proven wrong.

3. Workflow is transformed to be a “non-voice” way of calling intents

If apps could offer standard entry points as outlined above, then it would make sense that Workflow would switch to using them.

In fact if Workflow only supported calling intents (rather than x-callback-url entry points), that would be a strong incentive for app developers to switch to the “official” way of exposing entry points.

It also feels much more like an Apple way of doing automation.

Summary

I’m really hopeful the acquisition of Workflow was done to extend and improve iOS automation, rather than just an acqui-hire of the founders.

If my predictions are correct, I think we’d have a powerful system to allow our apps to be automated, and an extensible system to write secure and powerful scripts to tie apps together (that is integrated with Siri).

I’d be very happy - and shocked 😊 - if any of this comes true.

Feel free to contact me via Twitter at @yeltzland if you have any thoughts on any of this.

Workflow Siri iOS