Learn What iOS Automation Can Do For You

iOS Automation

This is not a post detailing how you can automate your iOS devices, merely one to spur your interest in it. Though I do include some of my recipes and where to get started learning on your own. To be honest I am no expert but I have done some interesting things I haven't seen elsewhere so I thought I’d share them. I am not going to teach any of the basics but show what is possible and what I use it for. If you want to delve deeper and start making workflows of your own check out this site for the basics. Many of the points I make here will probably make you wonder 'What's the point of that?' The point is to make your iOS experience just a bit better. I am a firm believer that computers should make life better and by eliminating small annoyances it does just that. If you do try automating iOS I have a couple words of warning:

  • Not everything is possible.
  • Some apps don't support URL schemes
  • Don’t spend hours trying to figure out how to automate one a specific thing. (You’re wasting more time than you save.)
  • Don’t try and do too much at once. Take it slow and build up a habit.

Set and Forget

IFTTT

If This Than That is an app that activates actions when an argument becomes true. Probably the simplest way to get started with automation. It allows you to connect 3rd party services in a simple yet powerful way. Here are some of the recipes I use:

  • Completed Reminders are saved in Google Docs and Google Calendar.
  • Youtube videos are saved to Pocket when I mark a video 'Watch it Later.’
  • The Instagram photos I take are saved to Dropbox.
  • If my Facebook profile picture is changed, it changes my Twitter picture as well.

Download it and play around with it, you can do some really cool things. You activate a recipe and then don't even have to think about it. It will continue to get more powerful as new services are added. IFTTT is the easiest place to get started, enjoy.

Note: It isn’t always listening, it seems to check once or twice a day to see if it needs to do anything, so don’t expect instantaneous action.

Active Use

You have probably noticed iOS apps are pretty insular. This is because Apple requires apps be “sandboxed” so malicious code can’t affect other apps. Which is good from a security standpoint but limits communications between apps to the point of nerfing the functionality. Apple left one slight crack in the sandbox to send information between apps, URL schemes. Just like websites, iOS apps have specific URL’s. This is what is used when you press an iTunes like in Safari and it launches the App Store. It should be noted that not every application takes advantage of URL schemes but many do. Some applications only program in support to launch the app but others go farther. They create specific URL schemes for launching actions in their applications. How do we launch URL schemes? I use two applications, ‘Launch Center Pro’ (LCP) and ‘Drafts’.

Launch Center Pro

My LCP set up.

My LCP set up.

Launch Center Pro ($4.99 iPhone, $7.99 iPad) allows you to launch actions with the press of a button. I use Launch Center Pro to launch most of my actions, even the ones from Drafts. I do it this way because I prefer pressing a button to launch my action over searching through a menu to launch it from Drafts. The simplest action just launches an application but it can do so much more. For me it cuts out the tedium of navigating through menus to do something simple. It fixes the little annoyances, that seem insignificant but make your experience a little better. Be sure to explore the ‘Action Composer’ it is a simple way to create some very cool actions.

Drafts

Drafts basic lay out.

Drafts basic lay out.

On the surface Drafts ($3.99 iPhone, $4.99 iPad) is a simple text editor, but its real purpose is creating and launching actions. You write something and from the actions menu, you can send that text just about anywhere. From social networks, to your cloud storage app, to another writing app. Drafts enables you make more complicated workflows and you can even link workflows together.

Here are some of my actions:

  • Post a status, tweet, search twitter, post pictures, etc all at the click of a button.
  • Start a group conversation, message a specific person, email a specific person.
  • Search for a specific band in Rdio. Opening Rdio, sliding from the left, pressing the search field, inputting text, and then pressing on the album always felt like a clunky process. So I created actions to go directly to the albums I listen to most or search for a specific band to see their albums. No typing needed.
  • Searching various applications. I can search Google, the App Store, iTunes Store, Rdio, 1Password, Editorial, Twitter, Fantastical, and many more. Once again bypassing waiting for the app to open, navigating to the search field and typing in what I want.
  • For small text snippets I have a Quick Note action that I write a title, the body, and then it is saved to Dropbox.
  • I can write a Facebook status and Tweet at the same time.
  • I have links to important documents in Editorial. When I press on one I am launch Editorial and the document I want is waiting for me.

Some of these actions are possible with just LCP but for others Drafts is needed. Many of these things are possible without even knowing what an URL scheme is, by using the built in action composers.

Download A Couple Of My Actions

Post a Facebook status and Tweet a text snippet

Launch Center Pro Action

Drafts Action

(Pressing either, on iOS, will import them into their respective apps.)

You need both apps for this to work. It allows you to type once press a button and have it go to the two different services. You can even add other services, like App.net, if you like. (Just make sure you are logged into Facebook and Twitter in Drafts otherwise it won’t work.)

Searching the iTunes Store

While there is a built in action to search the ‘App Store’ I wanted to be able to search for TV shows and what not so I made this.

Download LCP Action

Launch directly into a specific album in Rdio:

Download LCP Action (It’s for alt J - An Awesome Wave)

How to make your own custom version: 1. Go to Rdio and press the share button on the album you want. 2. Copy the link. 3. Go to LCP and create a new action 4. In the URL bar paste the link. 5. Change ‘http:’ to ‘rdio:’ 6. I like to get the album cover for the icon so just save it from the web and add it from your camera role.

Simple, isn’t it?

If you want to see a bands entire discography there is a built in search action just: 1. Press ‘Action Composer’ 2. Go to Installed Apps 3. Rdio 4. Search Rdio, and enter in the band you want.

This is an example of the increasing use of URL schemes by developers, when I set my searches up I had to manually figure out the URL scheme for searching.

Quick Note to Dropbox

If you have read my other posts you may know my affection for plain notes rather than something like ‘Evernote.’ This prompts you for a title and then what you want it to say. It comes in two halves:

Download LCP Action

Drafts Action

Note: This will not work unless you have a folder ‘Quick Notes’ inside a folder called ‘Documents’ (You can easily change the path by going to ‘Dropbox Actions’ in the settings and changing the path to whatever folders you want.

What You Will Need

Where To Learn How To Make Your Own

  1. Mac Stories has a fantastic post for learning the basics.
  2. The Axx is a site dedicated to iOS automation
  3. Just search online, or as Microsoft puts it “just Bing it!”

And Much More

Just play around with LCP and Drafts to see what is possible. It makes it very easy to build many different actions and learning the basics of how URL schemes works allows you to make many more. It’s not hard it just takes a bit of time to learn. If you have any questions you can email or comment on this post and I will help you out to the best of my abilities.


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