It's time for Apple to bring Automator to iOS


Have you noticed that, for the first time in recent memory, Apple seems to have pulled back on its blistering rate of new, innovative product launches?

Consider the fact that although the company refreshed virtually every product in their line-up this year, and even introduced a new, smaller iPad, not one of these products is an innovation in the market. They are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

This innovation “lull” comes at a dangerous time for Apple. Its core product lines: the iPhone, the iPad and the Mac (including desktop and laptop models) are under the kind of competitive pressure that hasn’t been seen in years. Android as a mobile OS has finally come in to its own, and is seeing huge success, especially in its Samsung Galaxy SIII guise which, for the first time since the iPhone’s debut in 2007, has outsold Apple’s flagship.

At the same time, Microsoft is taking the enormous gamble of leap-frogging Apple in the desktop OS market with Windows 8 – an OS that fuses touch-based computing and classic mouse-and-keyboard computing into a single experience.

Some might say that this situation is a natural part of the technology life-cycle. Product innovation happens in waves, especially at the hardware level. Perhaps we’re simply in the trough of a hardware innovation wave.

That being the case, the obvious place for Apple to try differentiating itself (until its next revolutionary product) is with software. The company already enjoys an enviable ecosystem where hardware and software are designed in lock-step, ensuring that the one always complements the other. But it’s time to do more.

Apple seems to have overlooked one of the most promising areas of mobile computing: contextual task automation. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that they’ve missed this boat. After all, Mac OS X has some of the most powerful automation tools of any OS: AppleScript and Automator.

Between these two tools, users can exercise almost any level of control they desire over the functions of their Macs. Automator provides a graphical way of doing so, and requires no programming knowledge whatsoever. AppleScript can fill in the blanks, giving power-users even greater control.

If you’ve never heard of these tools, or you have but have never used them, there’s a good reason: task automation on computers is largely used by professionals to speed up workflows by having the computer complete certain repetitive tasks. But its power is limited by the number of contexts users find themselves in. Given that the average PC, whether desktop or laptop, has no GPS, accelerometer, compass, barometer, phone or proximity sensors, it’s almost deaf, dumb and blind compared to a smartphone (bad analogy given that all PCs have webcams, mics and speakers, but bear with me).

But mobile devices are a different story. They’re with us wherever we go and connect us to every type of information imaginable. Best of all, they have a high degree of contextual awareness thanks to the various sensors mentioned above. This fact has not been lost on the Android camp.

Recently, two examples of contextual automation have caught my attention. The first is the Motorola ATRIX HD LTE, an Android smartphone that Motorola has customized with various options including something they call Smart Actions. At their core, Smart Actions are simply a way for a user to create “if/then” conditions for just about any situation s/he can think of. One fabulous example: IF I’m driving and someone texts me THEN send the following automatic reply “Thanks for your text. I’m currently driving and will respond when it’s safe to do so.”

There are dozens of such useful conditions that users can customize (the phone ships with several pre-programmed options).

The other example was demo’d for me last week: Sony’s new “Bond Phone”, the Xperia T, comes with Smart Connect, a free Sony app that can be installed on any Android 4.0 device. Much like Smart Actions, Smart Connect lets you script trigger events in addition to managing certain external devices like Bluetooth headsets.

So why then, has Apple ignored such a fantastic opportunity to be the dominant player in contextual automation?

Not only does the Cupertino juggernaut have a wealth of experience in this area, they have a uniquely synchronized set of hardware, software and services. Imagine the possibilities for a customer who is fully committed to Apple’s ecosystem and owns an iPhone, iPad, iMac, Apple TV and several AirPlay-compatible speaker systems.

Here’s just one scenario…

Our happy-go-lucky Apple user is strolling home after getting off the bus/streetcar/subway, while listening to her favourite podcast on her iPhone. But as she arrives at her front door, the podcast still has 10 minutes left. As soon as she unplugs her EarPods, her iPhone automatically routes the podcast over AirPlay to her speakers in the living room. A text message is sent to her boyfriend who is working abroad, letting him know she’s home if he wants to FaceTime before he turns in for the night. Because the time is now 5:30 p.m., her notifications preferences switch so that new emails from work no longer trigger sounds or vibrations, but personal emails still do.

Needless to say, that was the best I could do off the top of my head, but clearly the possibilities are endless. But there’s no reason why Automator for iOS shouldn’t be social too. I could see an entire scene developing around such an app, with users sharing their favourite scripted events and even in-app purchases, so that developers with a knack for AppleScript could sell advanced Automator processes designed for professionals of all stripes.

So readers, what say you? Would Automator for iOS be the kind of thing you’d like to play with? Or are you content with the existing automatic processes within iOS? Or does Siri do all of your bidding?

Let us know!

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