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How Macs Could Benefit From iOS-Like Automation 2021

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Key Takeaways

Shortcuts lets you automate almost anything on the iPhone and iPad.The Mac has more powerful automation, but it's dying, and hard to use.The Mac could run Shortcuts, but apps would have to support it. unsplash / Mockup Photos

Why is there nothing as good as iOS Shortcuts on the Mac? The iPhone didn't even have copy and paste until two years after launch, and yet now it has better automation than the middle-aged Mac.

Shortcuts is iOS's built-in system to automate your iPhone or iPad. It's intuitive, powerful, easy and fun to use, and is connected deep into the inner workings of iOS.

On the Mac, there's nothing as easy, or as well-supported. AppleScript and Automator are on life support, shell-scripting is too hard for normal people, and even third-party automation apps are confusing. What's going on?

"I think scale—iOS is likely the priority for Apple given the size of the relevant markets," veteran iOS and Mac developer James Thomson told Ach5 via direct message.

Shortcuts

iOS is locked down tight. Apps cannot talk to each other, and the inner workings of the iPhone and iPad operating system are kept far from prying third-party apps.

Which makes it all the more miraculous that Shortcuts started out as such a third-party app. It was called Workflow, and Apple liked it so much, it bought the company, baked the app into iOS, and renamed it. 

Shortcuts lets you string together many actions, in order to automate pretty much anything on your iPhone or iPad. It's a form of visual programming, only it's way easier.

You just drag pre-made blocks onto a canvas, and they run one after the other. Shortcuts can be as simple as resizing an image and saving it to Dropbox, or as complex as a regular app.

Many third-party apps include Shortcuts actions in their apps, letting you automate them. But the majority of actions are built in. You can access the camera, record audio, trim video, and way more.

You can build shortcuts to translate text, play music and turn on the lights when you arrive home, and much more. There's even a gallery in the app to browse example shortcuts. 

You also can trigger shortcuts automatically. Connecting to a particular speaker can launch your favorite movie-watching app and switch on Do Not Disturb, for example. 

Shortcuts' strength comes from its combination of ease-of-use, powerful features, and ongoing support—both Apple and developers are adding new actions all the time. It's active, exciting, and alive. 

Automation on the Mac

Automation on the Mac is way more powerful than on iOS. You can write Applescripts, use Automator (Shortcuts' older sibling), or open a Terminal window and start creating shell scripts.

"Apple seems to have abandoned automation on the Mac, but the fact that it is actively developing Shortcuts on iOS shows that it hasn't ditched the concept altogether."

There are also several third-party apps that let you build automations using step-by-step blocks, similar to both Automator and Shortcuts. And yet automation on the Mac is moribund.

Automator seems to have had very few updates in recent years, if any. Just last week I tried to create an automation that would take new emails from a certain sender, and convert them into PDFs.

Sounds simple, right? It's not. You have to install tools into the command line, and then write a script to use it. 

Shortcuts on the Mac?

It could be the general neglect that the Mac has suffered since iOS came along. The Mac has spent the past decade with very few exciting changes, and at least one catastrophic problem that Apple ignored for years.

That's changing, thanks to the new Apple Silicon Macs, and hopefully the software will follow. 

Christina @ wocintechchat / Unsplash

One possibility is for Apple to bring Shortcuts to the Mac. Developer Steve Troughton-Smith already has gotten Shortcuts running on the Mac, after he unearthed code buried by Apple in a beta of macOS 10.15 Catalina.

The biggest hurdle is that Shortcuts could work with apps ported over from iOS (called Catalyst apps), but not with apps built natively for the Mac (AppKit apps).

"My understanding is most of the pieces are there to do Shortcuts on the Mac with Catalyst apps," said Thomson.

"But there would have to be more work done to make those work with AppKit apps (possible requiring developers to rewrite things, as the systems are quite different)."

Apple seems to have abandoned automation on the Mac, but the fact that it is actively developing Shortcuts on iOS shows that it hasn't ditched the concept altogether. There may be hope, then, that Shortcuts, or something similar, will finally make it back to the Mac.