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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Blank Canvas: Hands on with Apple’s new Freeform app

It’s not every week that Apple releases a new app, but this is that week. As a part of rolling out iOS 16.2 and macOS Ventura 13.1, Apple’s introducing the world to Freeform, an app it introduced back in June as a part of a WWDC keynote segment about iPad collaboration features.

Freeform is fun. It’s got a bunch of rough edges that I hope can be sanded out over time as it grows and evolves, but I love the idea that Apple decided that its collaboration tools (and, by extension, its platforms) really needed a free space for individuals and groups to use as an infinite sheet of Internet-connected note paper.

It’s all in the name, really. Freeform is a place for you to share “Boards” with other users—you invite them via iMessage, and can quickly bring up a chat or audio or video call with collaborators who are active in the document.

Freeform also offers text tools, sticky notes, image and video support, and a clip-art library.

Freeform feels like an app that was built on Apple’s existing markup tools, since if you open a Board and start sketching with Apple Pencil, it all just works exactly as you’d expect. But beyond the obligatory pen/pencil/eraser tools, Apple has loaded in a bunch of other media types: text blocks, sticky notes, a very large library of vector shapes and other clip art, and quick access to import photos or videos from your library, capture them with a camera, import links from the web, and more.

The result can be a free-for-all where all these media types live together, though even if all most Boards end up being is a shared whiteboard, that’s not the end of the world. Apple’s iPad drawing tools are pretty good, and getting them out of places like Notes and into an app like Freeform really gives them a chance to shine.

My complaints about Freeform are mostly about how it frequently just didn’t do what I wanted it to do. Sometimes tapping an object and dragging would move it on the canvas, while other times it would lift a copy of the item for me to drag around… but when I dropped it elsewhere in the app, nothing would happen. Sometimes I could drag an image on a shape to automatically use the shape as a mask for the image… other times it just didn’t work. I can crop imported photos, but not videos.

Freeform offers Apple’s great drawing tools, but you can’t use the Appe Pencil for anything else.

Most frustratingly, Freeform needs to work better for iPad users who are using both an Apple Pencil and their fingers. One of my favorite iPad apps, Ferrite, lets me use pencil gestures for some tasks (cutting audio clips) while I can also use my fingers for other functions (moving and selecting objects).

Freeform doesn’t seem to want to differentiate, so if I’m drawing with the Apple Pencil and then tap to move something on screen, I end up just drawing with my finger. Instead, I need to tap the drawing tools, then tap to move an object. I also don’t love Freeform’s insistence that the Apple Pencil is only a drawing tool; I can’t use it to select objects or drag them around on the Board.

In summary, Freeform feels like an app that Apple realized it needed to make in order to test its new integrated collaboration features. I’m glad it did; it’s not going to change the world, but even Apple may be surprised at the different ways that users take advantage of that. It’s fitting that the future of the app is itself a blank canvas, waiting to be filled in.

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