When I saw the news that Apple had acquired the DeskConnect team and their very popular app Workflow last week, I was excited. This seemed like a perfect move, especially as the early battle for supremacy in Home Automation (which for someone like myself who works in Industrial Automation is still kind of a joke, but that’s a topic for another day), begins to really heat up. Workflow is just the kind of app that can string together the functionality of many different iOS apps and connected services in a way that still obeys Apple’s App Store rules. This seems like the perfect engine to both run Apple’s future Home endeavors and help iOS power users achieve greater flexibility. Apple lead off their leadership by making the app free, which prompted plenty of new downloads.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Apple to put a damper on the good vibes. Almost immediately, the negative App Store reviews and complaints began to flow in as existing users discovered that Apple had removed the ability to link to most useful third party apps and services, most notably Google’s, after an update. Bear in mind that these are existing paying users. No matter how Apple chooses to spin this, and knowing them and how their PR works, they may not even bother unless the complaints become an outright uproar, it’s still a bad look.
For any of you about to hurl insults at me for blindly attacking Apple, this is where I step back a little bit. I am one of the paying customers who bought Workflow a while back, but I never used it extensively or came to rely on it on a daily basis. I have used it for a few things, but like IFTTT, I have never really had the time or inclination to dig in and take full advantage of all it could do. As such, I’m not one of those who feels personally put out by Apple’s decision to remove functionality from the app. I also understand that Apple just put X number of their billions in cash on the line, so Workflow is theirs to do with as they please. Since I’m not passionate about either side of the argument, I feel like I have at least some level of objectivity. For me, this is more about unnecessary negative PR, and the perceptions problems these instances sometimes create for Apple.
Many of you may draw parallels between what is currently happening with Workflow and the situation with Siri a few years ago. For those of you who weren’t iOS users before 2011, you may not remember that Siri actually began as a stand-alone search assistant app that tied in to many third party services, such as Fandango and OpenTable. Apple purchased the app, brought in the team behind it, and immediately began to integrate the technology into iOS. However, that is where the similarities end, for now. Apple actiually kept the Siri app alive as is was for a while after they purchased the company and began development of Siri for iOS. They also left the third party integrations alone during that time. However, the biggest distinction was that Siri was a free app, where millions of users have put down money on Workflow. There are also many Workflow users who have spent a lot of time and effort creating and sharing actions that take advantage of the power in the app. These two distinctions are the root of the backlash against Apple.
The situation with Workflow reminds me more of the uproar over a similarly tone-deaf decision last year to arbitrarily brick iPhones that had TouchID sensors swapped out during a screen replacement. In both cases, Apple took the road less popular somewhat arbitrarily and without any warning to users of the potentially negative impacts to them. In the case of replaced TouchID sensors, Apple engineers did have a valid reason to take some action, as the secure store in the device could become compromised if they don’t do the repair themselves, and pair the new fingerprint sensor with the device. However, bricking the entire phone without any warning, rather than just disabling TouchID, was an extremely poor decision that totally ignored the interests of users. The decision to immediately pull functionality from Workflow without warning was less severe, but similar in how tone deaf it was to the interests of existing users of the app.
It is possible that Apple didn’t pull the ability to connect to third party services as arbitrarily as it seems on the surface. I have seen theories floated that it has to do with legal negotiations and/or new approval processes for third parties to use Workflow going forward. Considering that DeskConnect was a small, nimble organization that was going to add any connection they could to every app and service possible, and Apple is massive and one of the most profitable companies in the world, this kind of additional scrutiny and processing doesn’t seem at all unreasonable. However, even if we give Apple the benefit of the doubt here, what harm would there have been in telling users about it in the App Store update notes? Or, how about an explaination paired with a short grace period before such measures take effect? Such measures would have given the quick-fire tech media and users with an ax to grind a lot less ammo to work with.
All the negativity and wondering what Apple is up to aside, this situation will eventually be smoothed over and forgotten. The TouchID issue last year was, and only gets brought up as an example of Apple PR gaffes these days. Eventually, the acquisition of DeskConnect and Workflow should become a big positive for Apple and its users. It’s easy to see how the app we know today could become a central hub for the app extensibility features we are used to using inside of each app via their Share Sheets. The ability to then string the actions of multiple apps together would give iOS users access to power most have never enjoyed from a single user interface. An expansion of Workflow could become a powerful tool that helps push iOS forward as a modern computing platform, especially in the hands of power users. Long term, the outlook for Workflow and iOS users is good.
In the short term, I hope that Apple will take the time to smooth things over with existing Workflow users. These are just the kinds of users that they need to cater to and keep solidly in the iOS camp. These are power users who are looking to push iOS to its limits and do more with it. Apple should want Workflow users to be singing their praises, continuing to use the app and evangelizing it to others. Hopefully, it’s not to late for them to backtrack a bit and at least offer some explanations for their changes to Workflow and keep its users in the fold. As I said before, Apple is fully within its rights to do whatever it wants with its intellectual property. Its just odd to me how little Apple seems to now regard such power users, both on its iOS and Mac platforms.
I don’t think there is any way for those of us on the outside to understand why, but it just seems like there is a disconnect between those making some of the lower-level product and feature decisions and the leadership and public relations departments at Apple. In such a large organization, EVERY decision is picked over and scrutinized by both the media and users, so every move has to be thought out in that light. Hopefully Tim Cook’s Apple can strike a better balance between their corporate interests and those of users going forward, and avoid unnecessary bad press and negative reviews from devoted users in the future. A little more common sense injected into their corporate DNA would go a long way.
Are there any Workflow users out there? If so, I would love to know your thoughts on Apple acquiring DeskConnect, and whether it has had a positive or negative impact on you. What do you think about the long term possibilities? Let me know in the Comments section below, on our Flipboard channel, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog. I would love to hear your thoughts.