Workflow App for iOS

The Workflow app for iOS is one of the coolest apps I’ve seen for iOS. It’s something that makes it that much easier to use iOS as a full time OS. There’s a bunch of little things that you can do on a full Mac that are hard to do on iOS.

Workflow takes advantage of iOS 8’s extensions to make it easy to ship data around, pass it through other apps or web services, munge it, and ship it off somewhere, or save it to Dropbox or Evernote. It’s pretty remarkable.

Federico Viticci’s lengthly review covers the app in detail, and gives a few examples of some handy workflows:

  • Save to PDF (take almost anything—web page, map, etc—and save out a PDF of it)
  • Search for the song lyrics of the current playing song
  • Tweet out the title and artwork of the song you’re listening to

There’s some handy workflows in the app’s gallery, as well as on the dedicated subreddit. Some of my favorites?

  • Send a URL into OmniFocus
  • View Source on a webpage
  • Get the current weather and news headlines and read them out loud

David Sparks has put together a video that I’ve just scratched the surface of covering the app. It’s an hour covering the ins and outs of the app.

It’s pretty infrequent that I find an iOS app that is interesting enough that I spend a bunch of time just playing around with it. Workflow is that sort of app.

Mac App Store Won’t Update Apps? This Might Help.

For the last couple of weeks, every time I got an update from the Mac App Store (for a non-system application), I’d go to update it, and the Mac App Store would ask for my password, think, and then fail with “There was an error in the App Store. Please try again later (20)”.

No amount of googling lead me to an answer, but it did lead me to some nifty debugging. For instance, apparently the App Store has a debug menu. I turned that on, turned up logging, and then watched my console log. It was complaining about the application receipt (the proof that you purchased the application).

So, back to the google to try to see if anyone ever found that error. I thought “maybe the App Store can’t read the place where I have receipts.” I tried to figure out where that is, which lead me to this post talking about how the App Store keeps receipts around in memory.

Well, I figured, I could give it a shot …

killall -KILL storeagent

and voilĂ , my App Store could update again.

(Which also means a reboot would have worked, but I go out of my way to not reboot my machine, if I can avoid it.)

A Couple of Quick App Reviews

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and haven’t had a ton of free time, but I have had some time to try out a couple of apps.

Waze

With all that traveling (mostly in the car), I gave Waze another shot. And I just can’t use it for day-to-day travel. It does one thing incredibly well: using real-time data to really find you the shortest route. It’ll route around traffic, route around various incidents, and use crowdsourced data to get you there faster. And it is really good at that, save the few times where it tries to get super cute and route you through a bunch of side streets and around neighborhoods to save you a minute of travel time.

It doesn’t do anything particularly poorly, but it does pretty much everything else mediocrely. The interface is visually not pleasing, and at times, confusing. The voice prompts are distorted and are pretty bad compared to other map apps. I think the voice prompts come too close to intersections, leading to harried moments of “is this the turn, ohhhh crap it is”.

For 90% of your travel, Apple Maps or Google Maps will probably meet your needs perfectly well. When you’re stuck in traffic, get your passenger to grab Waze and see if there’s a way around.

Overcast

Marco Arment’s Overcast is a new podcast player. I’ve been using it exclusively for a week, seeing if it fits my usage patterns better than other apps. So far, it does. The interface is really pretty nice—it’s pretty minimal and laid out nicely to take advantage of iOS7. It downloads and plays podcasts. I tend to listen to most podcasts at more than 1x speed, and Overcast handles that nicely. It also has a feature called “Smart Speed” where it snips out long silences to help speed up podcasts. It’s a pretty nifty feature and works as described. I’ve not noticed it yet, but it definitely speeds things up. This has allowed me to not use 2x speed, but knock back to 1.5x and still get a nice speed boost. One of the nicest features is that it will import your settings from most other podcast apps to get your started. A really nice touch. All of the server side stuff seems to run pretty smoothly … more on that in a bit.

There’s a couple of rough edges, which is to be expected in a 1.0 release. You can’t globally set “always play podcasts at X speed”—you set them on each podcast with a “use last settings” or “always use these settings”. I’d guess its an attempt to not put too much stuff hitting in a setting screen, but it always bites me when I’m playing a new podcast or a podcast that hasn’t updated since the app released. It doesn’t seem to download new podcasts quite as quickly as Instacast did. You can’t tap the top of the screen to scroll to the top of the view. When downloading, it does seem to heat up the battery decently (though that could be intermittent signal, since I’ve been traveling, so I’m holding out judgment on that one).

So far, it’s my go to podcast app. I think in a couple of iterations, it’ll have sanded off the rough edges. And, to top it off, it’s the only podcast app I know of that brings a web app to the table, which means you get desktop sync no matter where you are. The only thing that needs to happen on the desktop app is for it to find a way to play at more than 1x speed, which would be a huge win.

Sometimes It Just Takes a Little Prodding

I used to run. There was a point in time at a previous job, where I wasn’t super happy, nor particularly engaged, and I could get out of the office at a normal time and go running. Distance running has never been my thing, but I would run 4–5 miles a day, 5 or 6 days a week.

Over the past few years, I’ve fallen into some bad habits. I’d go through phases where I’d run a few miles a couple of times a week; then it was running a few miles at the gym a couple of times a week. Until the last month, it was run every couple of weeks and pretend that the exercise I get from softball and basketball is enough to get by.

Periodically, I’d use something like Runkeeper to try to motivate me. “Hey, you should go running and try to do better than you did yesterday.” The downside—I’d often get frustrated because going from running 4–5 miles a day to 2–3 miles every couple of weeks was a big step back and seeing that displayed to me when I started the app was demoralizing, not encouraging.

I went through these cycles for a couple of years.

Then I got my new iPhone 5S with its M7 chip.

And, honestly, this isn’t any sort of amazing revelation, but just using an app like Pedometer++[1] is enough to help get me up and moving a bit more. It just measures your steps each day, and you can set a goal. It’s a Fitbit[2], but comes in a device that’s already in my pocket 90% of the day. It’s just enough prodding. I open the app, see I only have a few thousand steps, and I’ll go for a run (I went as far as to buy a thingy to carry my phone while I run). Or I’ll walk the long way to grab dinner.

It’s not much. But I’m sitting here on 9,300 steps for the day (which doesn’t count the hour and a half of basketball, or hour plus of softball – so I’m really probably closer to 20,000 steps), and I’ll probably go walk around a bit to get over 10,000 steps for the day.

It’s so incredibly stupid that I am motivated by a little number, and not by simply getting in better shape or generally being healthier.

But, it turns out, that seeing the little values go to 10,000 is just enough prodding.


  1. Grab it from the app store

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  2. I’ve avoided the Fitbit or Nike Fuel or any of those things forever, for a couple of reasons. One, I hate carrying things. I don’t wear jewelry or watches. I try to have as little in my pockets as possible. But, I think I should have joined the crowd and grabbed one of those things. I’d likely have figured out that I’m motivated by seeing round numbers a long time ago.

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Freeing Up Space for iCloud Backups

Over the past few weeks, since upgrading to iOS 7, I’ve been getting error messages that the nightly iCloud backup hasn’t been able to finish because I don’t have enough free iCloud space. The odd bit about that is that I don’t remember seeing an error like that at all in the previous few weeks (or months, really). I’d occasionally seen the error due to connectivity issues, but never due to issues with storage space.

I let it linger for a few days, but knowing that my device wasn’t getting backed up bugged me enough to take a look.

Getting to the iCloud Backup settings isn’t entirely obvious.

Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup > Manage Storage

That’ll drop you off on a screen that lists each of your devices that you are backing up. For me, it’s an iPad 2nd gen and iPhone 5S.

Drill into the device your on, and you’ll be greeted with a list of what is getting backed up on that device. You’ll see a list of apps, how much space the backup of that app takes, and an on/off switch to control whether or not you backup the data for that app.

Everything looked normal at first glance, until I noticed that Instapaper [1]

1.2GB of backup used for Instapaper. Double that, when you realize it’s installed on both my iPad and iPhone.

Half of my iCloud space taken up by one app.

Why is that a big deal? Well, Instapaper syncs all of its data with the Instapaper web site. So even if every article on my devices was deleted, I could just re-download them from the web. So there is literally zero need to back the articles up to iCloud[2]. CLick that button to off, and all of a sudden, all my backups are finishing with room to spare.

I’m guessing that some change in iOS 7 or a recent update to the Instapaper app changed what data it was backing up, leading to it filling up my iCloud storage. It’d be a nice thing for Instapaper or Apple (wherever the fault lies) to fix that in a future release. Regardless, if you find your device complaining about not being able to backup to iCloud, look for apps where the data can easily be recovered from the web (or another source). Wouldn’t you rather restore some web data to a single app than have to piece together all of the settings and apps on your phone because you weren’t backing it up?


  1. Instapaper is a “read later” app, where you can save articles you find online to read later (handy when you’re killing time in a line, or maybe in that other place where you do your reading.

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  2. And, honestly, why the hell is it backing up 1GB of data? It’s all text and maybe some images.

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A Trip to Blacksburg (or Can I Work on an iPad?)

I took a trip to Blacksburg last weekend to see some friends and check out a VT game. It was my first time back in over 5 years, but I knew it was going to be a short weekend. Fly in on Friday night, hang out all day Saturday, then fly back out on Sunday morning. With such a short window, I didn't want to bring a lot with me. The big question: iPad or laptop.

I decided that I would be able to make it over a weekend with just the iPad and a keyboard. I have a VPN client and a couple of ssh apps; in a pinch, I could hop online and get some work done.

And, wouldn't you know it, first thing Saturday morning, some scripts didn't finish and needed to get checked out. With Prompt 1 and the Apple Bluetooth keyboard, I made quick work of it.

This got me thinking about whether or not I could do most of my job on an iPad with a keyboard. My job, these days, is a lot of email, web apps, and a little bit of programming. All very very possible on the iPad. The only thing that I think might not be convenient on the iPad is our jabber/IM setup. We have a pretty massive contact list and I have yet to find an app that handles it well.

But, my experience last weekend, combined with iOS 7 (background apps), makes me thinks it might be worth a shot one day to just grab a keyboard and my iPad and see how effective I can be.

In that vein, I've been typing this in Editorial 2 – on the built-in soft keyboard on they iPad. Not my fastest typing, but it's manageable. And, if all goes well, this will get posted directly out of Editorial, using one of the workflows that's available on Editorial's workflow site.

If it doesn't go well, it's very likely to be my fault setting up the WordPress workflow in Editorial. 3


  1. Prompt on the App Store 

  2. My post on Editorial 

  3. Though, in my defense, that's something that's not terribly straightforward. It might take me a try or two.  

Listening to the Radio or Why I Bought an App Called Radium

Growing up, I listened to the radio a lot. We had this cool old tuner that, every once in a while, would pick up stations from around the country. Turns out, that’s is (was?) a hobby for lots of people, but for me it was just cool to hear slices of a random baseball game from some other part of the country.

The radio became my companion for the long, 11ish hour drives from Rutland to Blacksburg and back (Mass Pike West, 84S, 81S). This was the late 90s, so I had sometimes had a Discman that I would plug into the cassette deck to listen to CDs (if they didn’t skip too much), or would listen to mix tapes made by me or my friends. But, more often than not, I would spend minutes as I drove scanning up and down the dial for some random radio station in the area. Maybe I’d catch a good radio station and hear some song that I really liked. Today, I’d Shazam it and know exactly what it was. Back then, I’d listen longer, hoping to not lose the signal, and wait for the DJ to tell me what it was. Or worse, try to google the lyrics when I got home, and hope to stumble upon the song.

There was something incredibly interesting to me about hearing advertisements for car dealerships in Harrisburg, PA, or catching part of a church service when driving through West Virginia really early in the morning. The worst was losing a station you’d been listening to for an hour or so, after you’d gone 30 minutes catching nothing but static intermixed with the faintest signal.

Today, I still am endlessly entertained by radio (and TV) in other places. Whenever I travel for business and end up renting a car, I’ll find my way to the local rock/indie station, or maybe the local sports station. Listening to people call in and complain about whatever their local team is doing wrong. Arriving at the hotel, I’ll often throw on the TV and watch the local news. Living in Boston, I’m spoiled. I get real, HD news, and everything is, at least, remotely professional. Sometimes, in a smaller city, you get a reminder of what things were like a few years ago.

That whole story is a long preamble to what will likely be a short sell. When flipping through some RSS feeds, I came across a review of Radium. It’s a nice, small Mac app (with a companion iOS app) that makes it easy to listen to internet radio. I know there’s lots of ways to listen to the radio on the internet, but this one just clicked for me. Hit the icon, type in a genre, or more fun, a city, and find a station. When you’re listening, if a song comes on, you know what it is and can add it to a list (and then purchase it through iTunes).

In an age of podcasts, massive streaming music libraries, and satellite radio—also covered by Radium, if you’ve got a subscription—I don’t know why I want to listen to the radio. But for at least a few hours a week, I find myself clicking on a radio station (RadioBDC from Boston, KEXP from Seattle, NPR, random sports radio) and listening and feeling a bit like the old days when it was so exciting to pick up a signal from halfway across the country. Throw in the iOS app, and you can drive your car around while picking up a radio station from Texas, or listening to news talk from Maine.

As a postscript, I should mention that both the MLB and NBA apps for iOS are wonderful for the same reason. Listening to the radio broadcast of a random basketball game, while you walk home from watching the Celtics play, has been one of the pure old-timey joys of living in an always on world.

The app links in here are tagged with my iTunes affiliate link. If you buy something, I might get to buy an extra song someday.