Things I like this week, March 26 edition.

Here’s a few things I’m enjoying this week.

MacID
I’m usually very skeptical of utilities that allow you to do something with your Mac’s login, but this one is solid. MacID lets you configure your computer to unlock via Touch ID when your iOS device gets a notification. You can auto-lock it again when you walk away, and it also does proximity unlock when you come back–as well as clipboard sharing and audio controls. I’m only currently using the standard unlock without the other stuff, but it works really fast, and if you have a crazy password (I do, surprise!) it does save a ton of time. Plus, it’s pretty fun. Learn more about it and download the companion app here.

Fantastical 2
This one’s a biggie. Fantastical has long been one of my favorite apps on the Mac and iOS. This new Mac version was released yesterday and blew my mind. Formerly a calendar accessory, F2 is a full calendar replacement. Adding some impressive new functionality along with a beautiful Yosemite interface, this app merges simplicity and power in a great way. You can buy it direct from the Flexibits website or find it in the Mac App Store. It’s on sale for the launch event (20% off).

Things I like this week, March 19 edition.

As I find things I really enjoy, I’m going to try to share them here. I can go into more detail than I can on Twitter, and it’s nice to have a quick way to look back at these things from the future and see what’s changed (or how I have myself). So here we go: here’s what I’m digging this week.

Lore
A great new podcast by my friend Aaron Mahnke. It focuses on folklore, history, and stories that scare us. He shared the first episode with me shortly before he launched it, and I was immediately hooked. It’s brief, well-produced, and full of rich storytelling and historical detail. Here’s the site for the show.

Blink
A new app by another friend, John Voorhees, that makes searching for media and generating affiliate links from the iTunes stores exceptionally easy. With a nice, clean interface, and iOS 8-friendly extension, it’s a great addition to your device if you find this process tedious on iOS. Blink is out today.

Launcher
This app has a rather storied history, but it’s back now, and I missed it the first time around, so I’m getting into what it can do. Short version: you can pin shortcuts to other apps and actions in a Notification Center widget. Which means all kinds of cool functionality is now only a swipe away. A perfect complement to Launch Center Pro and Workflow, you can pair it up with the other powerful automation apps you might be using and make a crazy Voltron of mobile productivity. Get it here.

The case for a chunky Apple Watch.

I’m officially looking forward to the release of the Apple Watch. I’ve been dabbling with a Pebble Steel since late last year, and now, the experiment having proved valuable, I’m totally ready to take the practice of wearing a smart device to the next level.

One of the hallmarks of Apple device updates is the relentless march to unyielding thinness. We’ve all seen it, and it’s unavoidable. The current crop of iOS devices are almost impossibly thin, and I’m sure the following refresh cycle after the next “S” update will melt our brains even further. This week on ATP the notion of the Apple Watch getting thinner as it progresses was brought up as part of the conversation surrounding upgrades and future iterations of the hardware. And in that moment, something truly horrifying spread across my mind.

I absolutely do not want a thinner Apple Watch. In fact, depending on how I feel about this initial hardware offering, there’s a chance I may even want a bigger one.

I am a chunky watch fan. I like big metal watches, and I have a nice little collection of Casio G-Shocks and other sport watches. I’m a surfer, and I like my stuff to be fairly rugged, with the exception of the one or two watches I’d call my “fancy lad” varieties. (Even still, we’re talking about a nice Fossil or something, not a Submariner.) Like everyone else, I eyeballed the sizing of the two models once they appeared on the store, and there was no doubt in my mind that 42mm was the size for me. I heard Myke mention on Connected that he’d heard the 42mm was about the same size as the Pebble Steel that he and I both currently sport, and I looked at my wrist and smiled. I’d be fine if it was even a little bigger, as the watch I bought most recently prior to the Steel was an enormous blue-grey G-Shock that was borderline silly for my modest avian wrists, but I still love it.

I have never liked thin, flat watches. They felt lacking to me. No matter how nice or cool looking they might be, I detest their presence on my arm. They have no place in my world, and I shun them. Shun. Chunk is life. Long live chunk.

But here’s the thing: Apple doesn’t like big and chunky. It stands to reason that the only rationale behind the current case size of the watch is that they needed that much room for components. Based on the company’s track record, a safe bet would be to assume that each successive model will get thinner and more svelte. Which is, admittedly, right up someone’s alley. Probably a lot of someones, if I’m being honest. But I also know I’m not alone in my love of big watches. There’s a big, wonderful world full of people who want small assault vehicles on their wrists.

So the question becomes: is this a typical Apple device that follows the same slimming pattern, or does the mere fact that it is an entirely new class of hardware based strongly in personal fashion set it apart? Will Apple cater to the aesthetic desires of both types of people? Will thinnies get their metal potato chip eventually while I am able to buy a tiny internet-connected Hummer if I so desire? I’m emboldened by the variety of options available at this initial launch, which makes me think that Apple has already considered something like this. I also know that if they haven’t, and the device follows the typical pattern, my first-gen watch will eventually (sooner than later, I’m sure) become woefully behind the times technologically as well as in terms of basic watch performance (battery).

As such, I am all in for right now. This watch is the right size for me, right now, and I expect to like it a hell of a lot. I mean, I like the Pebble enough, and it’s essentially a digital Post-It note right now. I’m sure the Apple Watch will be terrific. But will it remain my awesome chunky friend, or turn into a skinny friend who can’t stop talking about all the weight he/she lost even though you know all about it, and the truth of the matter is they were more fun when he/she didn’t care about weight so much?

I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

03-15-2015, 2:15 PM Rene makes a good point (he usually does) in saying Apple will want “lighter” and thinner is a factor of that. My feeling is that if this is positioned not as a device we carry, but one we wear, in watches, “heavier” often indicates a higher standard of quality. Lightweight watches that aren’t specifically purpose-based (i.e. lighter for a reason, or sport models) often can feel “cheap” to someone used to something with more heft. Again, the question is: what kind of device does Apple believe it is producing–a consumer electronic, or a fashion appliance?

DODOcase leather back for iPhone 6.

In my seemingly endless quest to find minimal case experiences for my iOS devices, I continue to plod through the internet in search of the Goldilocks fit for my phone. I recalled being a big fan of the DODOcase Bookback for a while, during the 4/4S years. It was a nice way to add a tiny bit of texture to your device without adding any bulk.

So it was with some enthusiasm that I ordered the equivalent product the company offers for the iPhone 6. I suppose the tl;dr here is that I don’t like it as much as my previous purchases.

Part of it is the color. This nude, peachy leather is the only option you have for this thing. Why not a nice rich brown as well, or better yet black, like the BOOKback of yore? I know, it says over time that it’ll become a “deep carmel color” which is interesting, because that’s a place, and not a color. I’ve never been to that part of California, but I’m curious to know how it looks compared to this.

More importantly though, is a problem that isn’t anyone’s fault. The iPhone 6/6+ has these rounded edges, which makes anything you apply to it that doesn’t hug it perfectly feel awfully out of place. When you stick this cover to the back, your fingers find the edges instantly, and although the site claims that’s a feature, it feels like a bug. Like I said, no one’s fault; everyone’s working with the same dimensions of the phone, but it’s a bummer. Who knows, perhaps some people do like feeling the edges of it all the time, but it broke the lines of the phone in a way that some of the other ultra-thin cases I’ve tried were able to preserve.

I’m being a little bit of a baby, I know. I could easily get over the color of it since it’s on the back and I’d probably never look at it anyway. Over time, it would probably get dirtier and evolve into a nice brown. But those older BOOKbacks were so good because they melted into the edges of the phone so perfectly. This one sits behind it like a small skin pedestal.

Into the drawer of failed hopes with ye.

Using Drafts as an Alfred replacement on iOS.

Lately I’ve enjoyed working from my iOS devices more than ever, due in large part to the great changes in iOS 8. But every day, I still do a great deal of work from the Mac as well for reasons of control and speed. I use Alfred for a ton of functionality, for everything from launching apps and quick searches to basic calculations and defining words. It is a single point of entry for so much of the data I interact with on a daily basis, and I love both the quickness it employs and the flexibility it affords me. I can extend it in completely new and crazy ways with workflows and create chained events to perform actions in the background. If you’ve never tried it, you simply must, and shortly thereafter upgrade to the Powerpack because it completely changes the way you can use your Mac.

Due to the essential nature of how iOS works, something like Alfred simply can’t exist in the same way. The company has released a companion app called Alfred Remote, which is interesting, and allows you to create a palette of quick buttons to launch actions on your Mac. But it’s far from an analogue to the functionality you’d find on the desktop. iOS silos its data for a variety of reasons, and even with the great strides iOS 8 brought to developers, the idea of an always-running, ubiquitous utility ready to assist you from anywhere you find yourself simply doesn’t exist. Even Apple’s own Spotlight implementation, while providing some of that functionality, doesn’t run everywhere–it needs to be invoked from the Springboard.

With these constraints in mind, I began to think of how I could replicate the tools I enjoy with Alfred in an iOS environment. Since getting the iPad Air 2, I’ve attempted to set it up as closely to my MacBook Pro’s app/service configuration as possible, so that I can truly work from either device. I’m also going through a process of discovering how I can slim down the number of individual apps I have installed by replicating functionality in other apps like Workflow and Launch Center Pro. It’s a fun way to pass some time, and I always like consolidating things. Sometimes it’s a little puzzle I want to solve, and sometimes the answer is to just use a dedicated app because the experience is better. But the process leads me to examine how and why I do things, and you know how I like gratuitous self-reflection. Ahem.

I had to examine what I do with Alfred on the Mac, and distill it down for iOS. There would obviously be sacrifices and redundancy in some cases, so I’d need to account for that. For instance, there’s no way I can toggle Wi-Fi or Bluetooth with a key command or a keyword on iOS as I can on the Mac, and between Spotlight and Launch Center Pro, my app-launching needs are more than taken care of. (Although, now that I think about it, you’d probably be able to build a simple app launcher into an action group if you really wanted to. Maybe I’ll give it a shot to see how it feels.) That left the core of what I do with Alfred.

Drafts is an incredible app that I’ve been using since it arrived on the App Store, and one that I’ve spoken about before. At a glance, it’s a notepad, ready to accept input as soon as you launch it. But anyone who’s used it can tell you it goes way further than that. You can send that note to a variety of places, perform actions on that text, even script additional functionality to interact with it. There is a vibrant community around the app and the Action Directory is evidence of that. I don’t have the capacity to explain how truly interesting and powerful this app is in the course of this piece, so go see it for yourself.

Thanks to its robust handling of text-based information, Drafts became my surrogate for this experiment on iOS. Through its Notification Center widget, it’s actually accessible from anywhere on my device (can’t say that for Spotlight), so I can always pull down and jump directly to it. It would be the single entry point for text, and I would apply as many different actions as I could to it to emulate my flow with Alfred. I took screenshots of Alfred’s preferences on the Mac as well as the individual workflows I had installed on top of that, and built a list of what I needed to do.

(Note: I’m not going to cover every single action in this post, but apart from the obvious things like controlling Wi-Fi, I’ve pretty much covered this list or I’m working on something that will. Or I’ve decided to ignore something and use a separate app. Whatever.)

First, the basics. The stuff I use that’s built into Alfred.

  • App launching
  • Search (internet/file system)
  • Basic calculations ️
  • Tools/functions
  • Definitions ️
  • Direct file system access
  • Contacts
  • Clipboard history/management
  • System commands

Then, my custom workflow additions.

  • Send to Todoist
  • Send to Due
  • Post to Twitter
  • Append/prepend text files
  • Wi-Fi/Bluetooth toggle
  • Basic conversions
  • Down for everyone or just me
  • Whois lookup
  • Force empty Mac trash
  • Forecast.io lookup
  • Giphy search
  • IMDb search
  • iTunes Store search
  • Determine current IP
  • New calendar event
  • New text file
  • Open current Safari tab in Chrome
  • Random password generator
  • Custom search (Box files)
  • Custom search (Dropbox files)
  • Pinboard search
  • Quick access to Transmit favorites
  • VPN toggle on/off

Many of these can be handled deftly in Drafts without much, if any tinkering. Some of this can’t be handled at all. Some of it just takes a little finesse. Here’s how it looks.

I created action groups: “Actions”, “Search”, “Notes”, and “Tools” based on the type of functionality I was looking for. With Alfred, it all kind of ends up in one big pool as you are able to winnow down what you’re doing contextually as you type–it’s one of the things that makes the app so cool. In Drafts, you need to browse a little. Different, but not terrible at all. Hey, it’s still iOS.

So, the actions. Anything dealing with plain text/notes–nailed. You can create, append, prepend, modify, and pretty much anything else you want to do as long as it’s text and your destination is somewhere Drafts supports. So all my Dropbox actions are buttoned up. Drafts can write to iCloud Drive as well, so that’s an option too for quick zaps between iOS and the Mac.

Same for quickly adding to apps like Todoist, Due, and Calendar to create new items. As long as a URL scheme exists or someone’s built an action and posted it, you can probably do it. Drafts has advanced clipboard handling, so that’s in there too, as is posting to Twitter.

In as many cases as I could, I applied URLs to these actions to open in a browser. Obviously, this makes sense for things like searches, especially since a lot of local apps don’t support any kind of URL scheme beyond opening. In some cases, I preferred native app integrations to web actions, though. It’s much better to open the Twitter app to do a search with its new deep integration than have to boot over to the mobile web, which frankly, sucks. I created a Pinboard web action for searching my own archives, since the app I like to use (Pinner) doesn’t support a search from outside currently. It’s a great app, but it just doesn’t do this one thing I want it to. I also repurposed some of my focused Duck Duck Go searches here, creating a master list of all the places I might want to hit, as well as a few app favorites (like 1Password).

Where things get pretty interesting is within Drafts’ advanced tagging system. It allows you to logically interpret certain things like dates, times, and even latitude and longitude–which came in really handy with the Forecast.io action. If I want the lookup for where I am right now, I don’t even need to enter text, since the URL adds the location tags independently. If I want to search a different location, I can type in “Austin, Texas” and run the Google weather search, which will take me straight to a page with a small weather module right at the top. I asked Greg about doing simple calculations right in the app, and he told me that’s supported as long as it doesn’t get too complicated. In addition to the action, there’s a script key add-on that does the math without needing to pull the drawer out. Hot.

Other cool things:

  • Giphy search goes right to the excellent custom UI in Launch Center Pro
  • iTunes Store search uses fnd.io which is fast and covers the entire store in a nice UI
  • Down for everyone and whois lookup use clipboard contents, and current IP is just a text-less action that runs, similar to the Forecast action

The things I can’t do at all? Well, as I said, toggling system states (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, VPN) is out, as is direct file access and search on iOS. What I discovered in my experimentation, however, was that while the Dropbox iOS app seemingly has no deep URL hooks, the mobile site supports a direct search as part of a URL string! So I’m able to pass a search term from Drafts to the mobile site, and after a few seconds (in my testing, under 15-20), I get a list of results, which I can then link to, or open in the native app. It’s not the real-time file access/search that Alfred provides, but it’s pretty damned cool for an iOS device, since my entire file system is based in Dropbox. Is it quicker to just open the native app and pull down the UI to search right there? Probably. But for the purposes of this experiment, this was a fun discovery.

As an extra bonus, I discovered that my WordPress site supports search in a similar way, so now I have a super fast path into my posts if I want to find something I wrote in the past to share with someone, which is something I do frequently.

Overall, it’s a big change in how I use my devices. I’m not sure if this will stick, but I wanted to try it, and see if I could map my Mac mental model of entry field-data-action to iOS. There are limits, but there are also cool things iOS can do that the Mac doesn’t. It’s interesting to me that on the Mac, my information flow out of my head to an action is so different than on iOS, based on how the environment differs.

It did get me thinking about what could be possible, though. I think that someone could definitely build something like Alfred for iOS and have it be as close to the Mac experience as possible, by which I mean that it would require some serious pre-configuration on the part of the user, and you’d still be limited by the iOS filesystem constraints, but between URL schemes and extensions, something really compelling could exist. I think you could build a UI on iOS that intelligently provided target actions based on what you type. I’m sure it would be a ridiculous power user tool, but I think it could work. I have no idea about what potential market this kind of app would find, but I’d love to see someone try. If it was done well, I see no reason why it couldn’t be sold at a premium to people like me who want to get every bit of power and functionality out of their devices.

In the meantime, this has been a really fun experiment for me and I figured out some cool things both about Drafts and how I can modify basic existing URLs to become more action-oriented. As our iOS devices gain more abilities, I look forward to seeing this process evolve. If you have any questions, you know where to find me.