Loss of Function

When apps change…

There are millions of apps on the App Store. I've downloaded more than a few of them. But there are a handful of apps that have really made an impact on my daily use of my phone, and an even smaller subset that I flat-out require. But what happens when things change? What happens when these beloved apps of mine switch hands, pivot to do more or less, or worse — go away?

Well, I try not to panic.

This week, Workflow was acquired by Apple. And I could go into the pros and cons of this acquisition, but others have, and so I won't. In short, the app that so many people love is changing hands and the future of the app as we knew it before might change drastically, even more than it already has. So, with all the uncertainty, what do I do?

I should say this now — I'm very happy for the Workflow team. They deserved every bit of the Apple Design Award they won, and a ton of credit for pushing the forefront of iOS automation. My mind is being filled with the possibilities of tight integration of the Workflow capabilities at a system level, allowing power users to really flourish and be as productive as anyone simply by using their iPhone. Maybe it will push also HomeKit farther. There really might not be a limit to what they can do other than their imagination now that they can get system-level access to anything and everything if the decision to do so is made. With that out of the way, I digress…

I'll admit — and it's slightly embarrassing — I had somewhat of a panic attack when I saw the news. This likely isn't due to the news itself. And it's very likely additive to the tremendous amount of stress with home, work, and everything else in life; this was just that one thing to push the button and release the flood gates. But what it ultimately did was send me down a path of introspection on how I'm using my devices and apps, and how I could rein in these feelings to a calm state.

My mind started with a question: Without Workflow, what am I going to do? Then: Without 2Do, how will I get all of my tasks managed? Furthermore: What am I going to do if [insert app name here] goes away, and there is a loss of function in my workflow(s)? How can I combat the changes that lie ahead that are completely beyond my control?

When I sit down and think about it, there are a lot of possibilities. For example: if 2Do stops being developed, there are a plethora of other task management apps on the App Store to choose from: OmniFocus, Todoist, or even Things 3.1 I could use a number of apps to replace it. What I can do is keep informed and up-to-date on the other apps out there, just in case that possibility becomes a reality. That's a simple way to calm my nerves.

When I use fundamental file formats, like .txt or .md for text files or .pdf for documents, I can mix and match apps as I see fit. I can look at alternatives to use like others do. It levels the playing field and allows the movement of data back and forth, allowing you to feel more comfortable that your data isn't going to remain in one place and be stuck.2

I can also simplify the number of apps I use, eschewing some of the powerhouse apps for something native to iOS. For a long time, I would use Fantastical as my calendar of choice. But I've traded that in for Calendar.app. The only time I use Fantastical now is when I have to do a lot of date entries, and I can quickly process them from Drafts using automation. But that's just it: it's saving me time, but it is actually possible to enter it in manually. I've used Reminders.app as a task management system, in two ways. Using native apps can surprise you from time to time, and in most cases, they are getting better with each iOS release. Using the native app means that it's going to be there for a long, long time.

What Workflow brings to the table for me is efficiency. It reduces the number of apps I need: I don't have many photo editing apps; I don't have small, single-use utilities that I used to have; and I can enter things into apps in multiple different ways. It's even allowed me to replace whole apps just by using some workflows in conjunction with other apps. It's a powerhouse app when I need it to be.

I have a few workflows where I'm able to get the daily view into my work and personal life. I can kick off processes or make calls to specific contacts. I can share my music using affiliate links. I can share entire blog posts from any text editor I want. I can copy bits of text I use repeatedly to my clipboard and quickly paste it in any app. All from the widget, if I want or need.

And even though it's made me more productive, faster, and efficient: I could, in theory, go on without it — I just don't really want to do things the old way. When it comes down to it, I think there's really one app I couldn't live without, and that's Drafts. There's no other app that I use which feels completely irreplaceable to me. But given that I can talk myself down off of the ledge and say that I could live without Workflow — and with an optimistic mindset for the future of automation at Apple — I probably could live without Drafts, but I sure as shit don't want to do that. Luckily, the app as it is today is powerful, and I could continue to use it in the current form; however, I'm really hoping that further development continues to make the app even better. And the same for 2Do. And the same for Workflow, whatever that future looks like.

When faced with the state of the App Store economy, there's bound to be some disruption that happens in your daily workflow due to a demise change of part or all of an app. And while I'm hopeful that the team at Workflow is going to be given the ability to positively influence iOS, to elevate it to the next level, and provide tighter integrations for apps — I also have to start thinking of other ways of doing things. The important part is to not lose focus on what you have to do, and figure out ways around it. We all did it before, and we could do it again — even if we don't want to. At the end of the day, we really just want iOS to be fun to use, and the platform to push the boundaries of what is possible.

We all lose sight of our perspective. I lost it a bit this week, but I got it back by sorting out my feelings, chatting with friends, and realizing that this problem of an app being acquired and not going away isn't a really difficult thing in the grand scheme of it all.3

For some, this may seem like the end. For others, this will be a new and exciting app to try for free. And ultimately, I think it will end up somewhere in between – simple for those that don't know much about it and powerful for the users that know and love it, just maybe not to the extent they're used to. I'm thankful for the progress that the Workflow team has made for iOS from outside Apple. Now I'm excited to see what they do from the inside.

  1. Sorry, Josh
  2. Anyone remember the PictureLife debacle?
  3. Mind-mapping and writing about it helps, of course.