As usual, MacStories has the full scoop on updates to Workflow. This is timely. I needed a prompt to write up some citation workflows for students I have been playing with. Writing any detail about the release itself is redundant. Viticci has that completely covered,
The marquee addition of this release is full support for drag and drop in iOS 11, which is especially impressive on the iPad as it allows you to trigger actions based on content you drop into a workflow. In the original Workflow, if you wanted to feed external content (text, images, links, videos, etc.) to actions, you had to manually select an item from a native picker, use the iOS clipboard, or use Workflow’s action extension in other apps. The system worked well, but it was neither fast nor intuitive.
Not too long ago, I wrote about handwritten note taking on the iPad. At the time I hadn’t yet spent much time with Myscript Nebo, but having since addressed that I feel it is appropriate to update the ledger. One of the caveats I put in front of that previous effort was the ability to take long form notes without the need of an Apple Pencil, so if you are looking at options for taking notes on the standard iPad, or you simply want to avoid the further cost of the Pencil, then what I the previous post still holds. For handwriting without the Apple Pencil, to my mind the best two options are still GoodNotes and Notability, and I have briefly covered the various tradeoffs users face with both apps. Both of those apps also have excellent Apple Pencil support, but having played with Nebo some more, to my mind there is no contest when it comes to handwriting recognition.
The Future of Handwriting
People like to talk about killer apps, personally I don’t much like the phrase, but where Nebo is concerned, it really does seem like a killer for the competition. Apps like Notes Plus have been available in the App Store for some time, but while that might have led to advancements in the inking engines and textual recognition, those improvements are more often than not accompanied by either feature bloat, user interface baggage, or both. This is one of the areas that Nebo excels, the interface is minimalist without being too sparse, and rather than holding to the now dated skeuomorphic design philosophy that once ruled the iOS-sphere, Myscript have managed to tastefully incorporate hybrid analogue elements that remain necessary for a successful handwriting workflow. Writing between the lines is as helpful to your wonky adult scribbles as it was to your long-forgetten spelling homework.
It is not only the user interface that benefits from such careful balance, but the user experience is characterised by clever gestures that complement a natural writing workflow. With Pencil gestures a user can delete a word by scribbling it out, insert line breaks, join and seperate words with simple upward and downward strokes. Framing words, highlighting, underlining and a variety of bullets enable simple but effective formatting that not only stops short of overkill, but is simple to learn. The most impressive aspect of these formatting gestures is the resulting seamless workflow that avoids interrupting one’s note-taking on input.
The one area that the Pencil-centric interface can get a little tricky is in editing text after capture. Nebo’s handwriting recognition works in real-time, so if necessary you can make corrections on the fly . If you happen to overlook a mistake until you have confirmed the conversion from handwriting into text, editing is still managed with the Apple Pencil. This is a reversal of the analogue to digital workflow, so while it is not difficult as such, I have to admit it takes a little getting used to. Regardless, Nebo still manages to capture the fine balance between a digital tool and an analogue workflow, something I feel other apps have come close to doing without quite getting there.
Nothing is Perfect
At the risk of being hypocritical, there are things that Nebo cannot do that I like to have in a notes app. I confess to hypocrisy for a couple of reasons, for one I have something of an old-skool reverence for what is known as the Unix philosophy, which simply stated is ‘do one thing and do it well’. It seems to me that – whether intentional or not – by design, iOS is almost the ideal realisation of this modular approach. Nebo is exactly this kind of app, it does one thing, and it does it exceptionally well. However, defining the boundaries of that one thing is what developers have to contend with in balancing the features they include, and support in their apps. The decision that I find most confounding in Nebo is the inability to annotate PDF documents, which I feel is made more conspicuous in its absence by the fact that you can import images for markup, and you can export text as PDF. This is no more than a minor quibble, and as I say, a somewhat hypocritical one at that.
The Little Things
To be honest, I often force myself to handwrite, knowing full well the proven benefits. Fortunately, Nebo has some tricks that take advantage of the relative speed of analogue input, making it a more obvious choice for certain tasks. For example, the ability to export text to HTML means a quick and dirty blog post is only a few scribbles away. Dedicated math objects can perform solvable operations – and the resultant text can be converted for further editing in any LaTeX editor . I would ordinarily open up Soulver for simple calculations, but that is not always necessary now. Nebo will also turn your ropey diagrams into congruent shapes for flow charts and mind maps. And, of course, optical character recognition means all of your text is searchable.
Nebo is not perfect, but there is no doubt that Myscript have pushed the envelope with handwriting recognition. If you have an iPad Pro, I would almost go as far to say that Nebo is enough to make picking up an Apple Pencil worth your while.
Again, the handwriting recognition is remarkable, so you hardly ever need to do this ↩
Experts consider significance of Apple’s deal with Ohio State – As these so-called experts mull this over, there are a couple of ways we can look at it. For a start, I find the idea that so-called university leaders are usually skeptical of corporate partnerships to be a spurious claim. The corporatisation of the University is well documented. The business school at the University of Auckland is notorious for having used McDonalds branded course materials, on top of which they gave new meaning to content marketing by using the same company for examples in examinations. Some people might feel it is a stretch to make such comparisons, but these are sponsorship deals plain and simple. Or are they?
If Apple truly commits to innovation in higher education, it could “really move the needle,” said Kim, as other companies like Google and Microsoft could follow suit. “All of these companies would be smart to put educational innovation, and partnerships with higher education, at the center of their plans,” Kim said, but he noted that such progress would not mean that university leaders would stop being skeptical of the return on investment of large-scale technology-adoption projects and company partnerships.
It is also worth considering the de facto technology monopoly held by Microsoft — obviously not just in education. 1 The ubiquity of class rooms with Apple computers in the mid eighties was almost forgotten in the haze of the past twenty years, where compatibility with Microsoft’s server technology and Office software decoupled most other solutions from the conversation. Google has had a significant say on recent detours from this narrative, but it is apparent that Apple is pushing back. The 5th generation iPad released this year was the first hint that deals like this would be coming. Although, this deal has gone well beyond the utility of that device, which is more than appropriate for higher education use.
The opportunity for colleges to arrange similar partnerships with Apple is something many would be watching closely, Kim said. He noted that his and other colleges have already been in contact with Apple to discover where they might collaborate. “This Ohio State partnership is certainly bigger in scope and scale than other partnerships that I’ve heard about, but it is in line with how I’ve been watching Apple’s approach to higher education evolve over the past couple of years,” said Kim.
Until Workflow created its own, Jordan Merrick was host to one of the best curated collections of Workflows one could hope to find. The directory was understandably taken down with the advent of an official version, which briefly included a mechanism for sharing workflows among the community of users. Apple’s acquisition of the Workflow team scuppered that initiative, insofar as they have kept open the official gallery within the app, but closed down the community aspect. Thankfully, generous users like Merrick have once again filled the breach. From JordanMerrick.com
In December 2016, I announced that I’d no longer be updating Workflow Directory. The Workflow team had made some great improvements to the gallery, the biggest of which was user submissions. At the time, it didn’t make sense to continue working on the site when the built-in feature was so much better.
Fast forward to March 2017 and the news broke that Apple had acquired Workflow. While the app continues to be updated, the gallery is not accepting user submissions. Since then, I had often wondered if it’d make sense to reopen Workflow Directory.
So I’ve decided to do just that, but in the process I’ve made a fundamental change. After testing the waters last week with a similar endeavor, Workflow Directory into a GitHub repository. Existing workflows have been migrated (with the exception of a few that are non-functional) and I’ve added a few new ones too. Each workflow has an accompanying README containing a description.
Workflow remains a glaring gap on this site. To be fair, I’ve not been at this too long, but the real reason is the art to doing the app justice. There are some ingenious users around creating incredibly inventive workflows. By way of qualification for the link to Jordan Merrick.com consider that every image posted on this site that is framed with an iPad or iPhone mockup has been created with either this Workflow, or its predecessor. Not only is it one of the best uses of the app I have come across, but it has saved me epic amounts of time.
There has been a lot of conjecture around the future of the Workflow app, but not only has the app continued to receive updates, the signs are good for some form of future integration into iOS [^ Perhaps even beyond, one can only hope]. The design language of visual automation hits the sweet spot between the über nerd and curious tinkerer, lowering the bar for entry by a remarkable degree. If you are worried that you might pour a lot of energy into something that is fated to disappear, I truly doubt that will happen in such a way that will render your learnings obsolete. The visual programming paradigm that has its roots in Automator has been so well refined for touch interaction by Workflow, that it is here to stay in one form or another. On the flip side, with initiatives like the Workflow Directory, if you swish to do so, you can get a fair amount of mileage out of the app without building any workflows of your own, or at least by adapting some to your own purposes. Of course, if you already have the chops, there is plenty of karma to be gained by pitching in to the directory with a contribution.
I have been impressed by Lighten. One would expect the folks at Xmind know what they are doing, but honestly that doesn’t always result in a decent mobile experience. Lighten is, as the name hints, a lightweight mind mapping app. It has simple feature set, but is a nice looking app with an intuitive workflow. For anyone looking to get into mind mapping on the iPad without fronting the expense for one of the more feature rich apps like MindNode or iThoughts, Lighten is a really good option. At the moment, with a back to school special still running, Lighten will set you back US$0.99. That is a serious bargain.
The one notable omission at this point is the inability to export to OPML, but there are still a range of export formats that should make that a moot point or all but the most steadfast workflows, and I would suggest that anyone with such a rigid mind mapping regime will probably be well past a gateway drug like Lighten One woudl expect the folks at Xmind. You can export to a Text file, Markdown, image, PDF, and of course both Xmind and Lighten file formats. Most mind mapping apps will parse the map successfully from one of those formats, and converting a mind map to an outline can be done with either Text or Markdown. I tested the transfer between Lighten and MindNode in a silly variety of ways and every time the mind map came out looking just like the cruft that made it from my mind to the so-called map.
If you are looking for a simple, aesthetically pleasing, and competent app to start mind mapping with, I suggest you take a look at Lighten. Xmind have not only done a good job with the app to date, but judging by the release notes the app is a going concern that will continue to receive love and attention. There might come a time that the 99 cents you put down here pays you back tenfold.
John Gruber has a nice, concise review of the new iPad pro. Ordinarily I would put this on the links page, but I have been looking for something succinct that might be helpful for anyone weighing up a purchase after last week’s WWDC. For a long time the iPad has been a decent ancillary device for academic work, but my sense is the new form factor and the forthcoming evolution in functionality with iOS 11 will start to make this a serious option as a primary work machine. There is still a way to go with certain apps  , but the iPad has already become an outstanding writing tool, and with this latest iteration it can be considered a serious alternative to a laptop for focused work.