Automatic For The Peep-Hole

(Originally posted 2016-10-09.)

I have to admit to being a bit of a wannabe when it comes to automation.

Certainly most of my career has been built on using and building tools – and you’d have to pry them out of my luke-warm retired hands. 🙂 But when it comes to automation in my personal life it’s a bit of a different story:

  • I haven’t (yet) got into Home Automation. Baby steps still.1
  • I don’t use many automation scripts on computers and iThingies.

Now this might surprise some people. But my modus operandi is much closer to “find a real use case” than you might think; I have to find projects that look like they’re close to a pay-off.

Anyhow, I have had a fair amount of practice trying to put workflows together, generally with decent results. Which leads me to slightly abstract musings on the subject of Automation.

In any case, I hope this post is in some small way an eye opener for you as to what you can do with the hardware and software (literally) to hand.2

Having installed Watch OS 3 on my Apple Watch3 I’ve found much to like; The usability, particularly the speed boost and the new dock, has improved to the point I want to play with it much more.

(I also paid a lot of money for a Task Manager that has a very nice Apple Watch interface – OmniFocus – but that’s another story.)

So I’m happy to input text on the Apple Watch – indeed inspired by Omnifocus4 – and there are lots of ways to do that. Given that, I thought a nice experiment would be to craft workflows where I can input text on the watch and have that sent as an email to my work email address.

Experiment: Sending An Email To Work

I tackled the exercise of dictating into the Watch and having it email me two different ways:

  • Workflow – running entirely on the iPhone and the Apple Watch.
  • DO Button by IFTTT and IFTTT – which mostly uses services on the web, kicked off by the Do Button app on the Watch.

One key difference between these two approaches is that Workflow is entirely device-oriented, whereas IFTTT has a heavy dependence on external services. Of course, both approaches require an external agent to actually send the email.

So let’s examine the two approaches in a little more detail.

With Workflow – Solely On iOS and Watch OS

I can rapidly kick off a workflow from the dock in the Watch. The left side below shows the first screen. You can dictate from there. The result is the screen on the right.

If I tap on “Done” the workflow continues, but there’s a twist:

I deliberately (and gratuitously) inserted a stage that gets the phone’s battery level. Obviously this can’t be run on the watch and, more importantly, can’t be run on the web. It has to be run locally and this is the key point:

Automation on the device can pick up things only the device knows about.

Setting up this workflow was very easy – being entirely on the iPhone. To make it work from the Watch I just had to select that as an option.

I will say the folks that make Workflow are very responsive and are rapidly adding to its capabilities.

You can get workflows others have built from within the app, and browse them on the web.

With IFTTT – External Automation

The IFTTT approach is a bit different. For a start you compose recipes using a Web interface, or use ones already built.

Secondly, the trigger for the recipe is a separate app – Do Button.

Thirdly, the action really takes place on the web.

One consequence of web-orientation is that it is device-neutral with an Android client being available. Or even not using a device at all. A couple of my recipes don’t use a device.

Again the action starts in the dock on the Watch.

The left side below shows the first screen of the recipe. The right side shows the dictation screen.

This time I have no ability to insert the phone’s battery level. But that’s not a real-world requirement for me.

I will say I found the recipe creation process a little more cumbersome, but not really difficult.

Again the developers are adding capabilities all the time.

Conclusion

While there’s quite a lot of automation you can do solely on an iOS device – and Workflow is not (quite) the only game in town – eventually most workflows (automation scripts, if you prefer) will need external services. Sending an email is just one of those cases.

But I would counsel people to do as much automation on the device as possible, for three reasons:

  • It’s probably easier to develop with e.g. the Workflow editor.
  • Security is probably better.
  • Speed will be better.
  • You can test – and possibly run in “Production” – even when there is no network connectivity. At least up to a point.

But the “on device” and ’fetching out for external services" approaches are not mutually exclusive. For example Workflow has an IFTTT action – where a named recipe can be invoked. It’s just that making good choices as to how to automate pays dividends. And at any given time each mode – on-device and on-web – will have access to different sources of data and actions.

By the way, the screenshots were taken by:

1) Pressing the digital crown and the side button simultaneously.5 This stores the screenshot in the Photos app.

2) Using the LongScreen app to stitch the photos together.

Well, I hope I’ve encouraged some of you to play with some nice toys; Despite what I said at the beginning I have a few choice workflows that ease my life.

And I’ll leave it to you to figure out the title. 🙂 It’s a rather contrived pun.


  1. I just got an Amazon Echo as a real first step.

  2. Or indeed on your wrist.

  3. It’s a Series 0, as some people have dubbed it, or the original Apple Watch. I think I’ll skip Series 2 and await Series 3, perhaps next year.

  4. I use dictation to send new tasks to my Inbox for later classification. I’ve been known to pull into a lay-by to do this. 🙂

  5. That behaviour has to be restored on Watch OS 3 from the Watch app on the iPhone.

Published by Martin Packer

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2 thoughts on “Automatic For The Peep-Hole

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