By Jason Snell
September 15, 2019 12:26 PM PT
Last updated July 27, 2020
13 Features of iOS 13: Shortcuts
Warning: This story has not been updated in several years and may contain out-of-date information.
Formerly the third-party app Workflow, Shortcuts was bought by Apple and integrated with iOS last year—but it was a first step. Shortcuts has had a year to spread its roots throughout the operating system, and in iOS 13 it’s been improved and better integrated—with the promise of even more to come in the very near future.
Shortcuts is now included on every iOS 13 devices—it’s not an add-on you have to download from the App Store. Apple has also begun to integrate disparate automation features of iOS and place them all inside Shortcuts. Siri Shortcuts, very simple app-based automations introduced in iOS 12, now live inside the Shortcuts app. And beginning in iOS 13.1, the simple automations that you create in the Home app will also appear in Shortcuts—and can be modified and enhanced with additional features of the Shortcuts app.
As someone who is not a software developer, I’ve had to imagine the pain Swift developers went through in the early days as the language evolved and their they had to keep rewriting their code to conform to the latest version. With Shortcuts in iOS 13, I’ve gotten at least a taste of that feeling, because upgrading to iOS 13 required me to do some work to get my Shortcuts working again. That’s life on the cutting edge, and the changes are for the better, but be warned—you may have to do some work to get your Shortcuts functioning to your liking on iOS 13.
The biggest improvement in the Shortcuts format itself is the explicit passing of data from item to item. Shortcuts works in a linear flow, items executing one at a time from top to bottom. In previous versions of Shortcuts and Workflow, data generally passed from the previous step, so if you wanted to grab data from somewhere else in the shortcut and use it instead, you’d need to add a Get Variable item and then act on it.
In iOS 13, items in Shortcuts explicitly label what data they’re acting on. By default, it’s the preceding item, but you can see it and change it right within the item, rather than adding additional items. It means that Shortcuts are a lot shorter than before—all those blocks that set and get variables are gone—and it’s clearer what each item is doing. Each item in a Shortcut is styled more like a sentence—”Set name of file file.txt to result.txt” rather than a stack of parameters.
Shortcuts just got a lot more useful if you use Siri, too. You can now create interactive Shortcuts that can ask questions and accept text input, especially useful if you’re not able to look at a screen because you’re using AirPods or CarPlay. And the redesigned Share Sheet in iOS 13 means that you can prominently place specific individual Shortcuts in the Share sheet, making it easy to access them with a single tap.
Shortcuts will also become vastly more usable in iOS 13 because app developers can contribute much more detailed, useful actions into Shortcuts from their apps. In the past, data got passed between apps and Shortcuts either via the clipboard or by embedding lots of data in a passed URL. In iOS 13, apps can specify what actions and data can get passed back and forth, which should—once apps are revised to support this feature—make Shortcuts much more flexible and powerful.
As someone who does a lot of work on the iPad, I’ve found that Shortcuts benefits from the new iPadOS feature that allows you to pin widgets on the home screen. I keep the Shortcuts widget pinned to my home screen, letting me run Shortcuts right from the home screen with just one tap.
There’s more to come. In current beta versions of iOS 13, Apple has added an automation tab to Shortcuts, allowing Shortcuts to run on timers or when triggered by other actions, such as tapping an item containing a chip that’s readable by the same NFC reader that the iPhone uses for Apple Pay. It’s a shame that this isn’t available quite yet, but it’s another example of how integrating Shortcuts deeply into the operating system will pay dividends in all sorts of unexpected ways.
There’s still much more that Apple can do with Shortcuts. I’d like to see the ability to select items in a Shortcut and copy, paste, and duplicate them, for example. I’d also like Apple to continue minimizing the appearance of the Shortcuts app (and the visible scrolling through steps of a Shortcut) when Shortcuts are run. It’s visually distracting and, unless you’re actively building the Shortcut, unnecessary. But that work will have to wait until deferred improvements like automations are added in (hopefully) iOS 13.1.
Regardless of the existence of a few straggling features, Shortcuts in iOS 13 has progressed in exactly the way I had hoped it would. This is Apple’s vision of how user automation will work in iOS, and Shortcuts keeps gaining power, system integration, and app connectivity. The future is bright for Shortcuts users—but with iOS 13, so is the present.
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