This column originally appeared on March 24 on Real Money, our premium site for active traders. Click here to get great columns like this.
Earlier this week, Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) - Get Reportrolled out a developer preview of the next version of Android (codenamed O) that tries to address some of the most frequent complaints that everyday consumers have about their smartphone experiences, such as poor battery life, notification overload, confusing settings interfaces and the inability to autofill forms in many apps. It's nothing spectacular, but should be a solid upgrade.
Not long afterwards, Apple (AAPL) - Get Reportconfirmed an acquisition that appears to spell a more ambitious effort to address a mobile pain point. It will likely take time for all the pieces to fall into place, but if and when they do, the result could be major improvements in the speed and convenience of many common interactions with iOS apps. And perhaps also for performing actions requiring multiple Apple devices.
Apple has bought Workflow, developer of an iPhone/iPad app that lets users perform tasks involving multiple actions with a small number of taps (sometimes just one). Terms, as usual, were not disclosed. Workflow's small team is joining Apple, and its app, which previously sold for $2.99, is now available for free in the App Store.
A few minutes spent playing around with the Workflow app drives home how effective it can be at automating multi-part smartphone/tablet tasks, including ones involving multiple apps. Some basic ones include searching for a local business and quickly getting a map and directions, launching a music playlist, creating PDFs from a web browser and simultaneously editing and sharing several photos.
A drag-and-drop interface makes it fairly easy for users to create their own workflows, as well as to customize them based on parameters such as the number of photos to be edited/shared, the distance that a business search should cover or which cloud service a file should be uploaded to. Once created, a user can access a workflow by tapping a home screen or widget icon, or through an "Action Extension" that can be accessed from any app featuring iOS' sharing interface.
In a nutshell, Workflow, when properly used, can automate away much of the tediousness involved in everyday smartphone interactions, and can be particularly useful for consumers relying on 5-inch touchscreens and possessing short attention spans. Look for it to get built into a future version of iOS, possibly iOS 11.
iOS integration would allow Apple to remove some of the Workflow apps' lingering annoyances, such as the need to take several steps to create a home screen icon for a workflow or to make an Action Extension quickly visible in an app. It would also allow Apple to integrate the solution with Siri, both for creating and launching workflows.
One can also see Apple coming up with a number of pre-made workflows that it bakes into iOS out of the box. Likewise, third-party developers could bundle pre-made workflows with their apps. Chances are that most everyday consumers will prefer such options relative to going through the trouble of thinking up and customizing their own workflows.
And as others have pointed out, Apple could eventually support workflows that involve the use of multiple devices. For example, a workflow could call for several iPhone photos to be merged into one and uploaded via iCloud, and then for the merged photo to be pulled up in the Photos app on a user's MacBook. Multi-device workflows could be especially useful for the Apple Watch, given its tiny screen, and also (via Apple's AirPlay feature) make it easier to stream content to an Apple TV set-top. Controlling smart home devices via Apple's HomeKit platform is another possibility.
Last but not least, workflows would provide Apple with one more productivity selling point as it tries to pitch the iPad Pro as a notebook alternative. The company still faces an uphill battle here with many consumers and office workers, but providing them with a solution that makes it easier to juggle the use of several apps at once certainly doesn't hurt.
Providing the level of integration described above is bound to take time, and so would getting top developers to embrace workflows en masse. But if Apple executes properly, the Workflow acquisition could let it provide one of the more compelling new features iOS has seen in a while, and a novel way to differentiate its mobile operating system relative to Android.