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Oct. 25, 2021, 6 a.m.
The Omni Show: Shortcuts, Automation, and macOS Monterey

On today’s show, CEO Ken Case and Automation Advocate Sal Soghoian tackle the question: "Are Omni Apps Ready for macOS Monterey?"

Spoiler Alert: Yes, they are!

At the Omni Group, we make powerful productivity apps which help you accomplish more every day. And with macOS Monterey, our apps are ready to take advantage of new features from day one.

Show Notes:

Andrew, Ken, and Sal talk about the endless automation possibilities with Shortcuts for the Mac. They also do an OmniFocus 4 Testflight progress check-in.

Some other people, places, and things mentioned in this episode:

  • OmniGraffle
  • OmniPlan
  • OmniFocus
  • OmniOutliner
  • Omni Automation
  • OmniFocus 4 Testflight
  • macOS Monterey
  • Transcript:

    Andrew J. Mason: You're listening to the Omni Show. Get to know the people and stories behind the Omni Group's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we have CEO, Ken Case, and automation advocate, Sal Soghoian talking about Monterey for Mac shortcuts, and OmniFocus 4 TestFlight.

    Andrew J. Mason: Well, welcome to this episode of the Omni Show. My name is Andrew J. Mason, and today we're excited to have a mini panel with the CEO and fearless leader of The Omni Group, Ken Case. Hey there, Ken.

    Ken Case: Hey there.

    Andrew J. Mason: As well as part-time rockstar and full-time automation advocate, Sal Soghoian with us today. Hey, Sal.

    Sal Soghoian: Greetings, good to be here.

    Andrew J. Mason: We're meeting up to discuss the excitement and implications of Apple's new event announcements, and this is including, but not limited to, their new Monterey operating system out today and all the goodies they've announced recently. But this comes at a time when we know that Omni is already hard at work. Ken, first over to you. I know it's been a minute since we've last talked and yet I know Omni Group is also busy making things happen. What has everybody been up to these days?

    Ken Case: Sure. Well let's see, the last time that we had a talk about our roadmap, I think I shared that we were busy redesigning and rebuilding all of our apps, based on the latest Apple technologies, in particular SwiftUI. So we've been hard at work with that for a while now and, in fact, about five months ago now, we started a couple of TestFlight of OmniFocus 4, for the iPad and iPhone, which is based on this new SwiftUI redesign.

    Ken Case: I should note that we don't refer to it as a Beta. We refer to it as a TestFlight because there are a lot of experiments that are happening as we try different things, try to think what works well, what doesn't work well, and there are major shifts happening all of the time. We've had this project going on for a while and we have thousands of people using their TestFlight now. It's been really great to see the enthusiasm from customers who are really passionate about how is this going to influence myWorkflow going forward when this new version comes out. What things can help and what things are getting in the way that we still have to work on. So, we've been busy with that and that's been where a lot of our attention has been this year.

    Ken Case: But of course, as usual, as WWDC came around, WWDC being Apple's developer conference, that was something that they held in June virtually this year, because of course the pandemic. And so we watched with a lot of interest as they unveiled new technologies. And we started thinking about, how does that influence the development work we've been doing? And some of the things that they unveiled, were a lot of improvements to SwiftUI and, of course, as I just mentioned, we were busy rebuilding all of our stuff on SwiftUI. It's a relatively new technology and very happy to see these improvements being made. And we immediately decided, this is something we need in the new version of OmniFocus we're going to leverage these latest changes. That means, of course, that it's going to take a little bit longer because we have to wait for that to ship. It's the winter development, but it seemed worth it to get it on top of these latest features. We've been busy with that work.

    Ken Case: One of the other really fun things that apple announced at WWDC was that they were bringing Shortcuts to the Mac that we've supported Shortcuts for a while on the iPad and the iPhone with custom actions in OmniFocus. But with this announcement that they were bringing Shortcuts to the Mac, we decided it was time to do some more.

    Andrew J. Mason: All so exciting. So with that, any announcements here now?

    Ken Case: One of the things that I'm really excited about with these shortcuts, that we are releasing is that we're making them available on the day that shortcuts ships on the Mac. So when Monterey ships, all of our apps will be available to all of our customers with Shortcuts support and integration, and you can start using it right away. Our customers are some of the most productive people in the world and they often update day-and-day. So it's a priority for us to be ready for them when they do.

    Andrew J. Mason: So yeah Sal, over to you. One of these announcements is that with Monterey, the Shortcuts app is now on the Mac as well. Is this an interesting thing? I can just imagine your eyes popping wide open with excitement when you found out this news. Is it interesting? And if so, why should folks be interested about this?

    Sal Soghoian: It's a very exciting time for users of Apple's Operating Systems, with Shortcuts now providing a way to automate the things that you do on any of their devices. It's really profound and a rewarding experience. Shortcuts is an example of what we call component automation, where you create a sequence of individual actions that perform their own individual tasks, and they're chained together and data is passed between those individual components. You can kind of think of it as like an automation recipe, where you might cut the carrots, cut the celery, cut the onions, mix them together and heat. Quite often a shortcut follows a pattern of acquiring content, processing the content, and then distributing the results. That's a very common formula for an automation recipe. And what Shortcuts allows is for people to create their own recipes or to share recipes and have them automatically perform these tasks for you on your computer or your iPhone or your iPad.

    Sal Soghoian: So this is really a groundbreaking and very interesting development. And of course, Omni wants to take advantage of this and provide that type of abilities to their customers as well. And they've done that through including two particular actions. So are those little components with all of their applications on iPhone and iPad and on the Mac. And the two actions are Omni Automation Script and Omni Automation Plug-In. And these are very important because of what they bring to shortcuts. With Omni Automation Script, it really expands what a shortcut action can do because you have the entire abilities of the Omni Automation scripting architecture available for you with each of their apps. So they really expand and provide a specificity that you really can't get through a generalized action in an application. In other words, if there's something that you want to do, that's very detailed, you have that through Omni Automation. And this now brings that integration right into your Shortcuts Workflow.

    Sal Soghoian: The second action, Omni Automation Plug-In, allows you to take all of the existing plug-ins that you have and you create, that you might've downloaded from omni-automation.com, and you can call those right from within your Shortcut without you having to write any code or do anything else. You just pick the name of the plug-in and it gets executed for you in the middle of your Shortcuts Workflow. So it makes the process of creating an automation recipe, even simpler.

    Sal Soghoian: Now, this is just the beginning of what's possible when you integrate the breath of Omni Automation with this new Shortcuts architecture. And the extra thing is that it integrates so well with the existing actions from OmniFocus. So you can use those in with the two new actions and they work seamlessly together. It's really exciting.

    Andrew J. Mason: Now that is cool to me, the idea that everything's tied together in this automation. Ken, what comes to mind, we talk about how it's important to try to skate to where the puck is going to be. I feel like we've really gotten it right with that, with Omni Automation building this foundation that now lies on top of every Apple device being tied together by iCloud. When you close your eyes and there's an upcoming Apple commercial, where they show what's possible, and Omni Automation is somehow a part of that, what gets you excited? What sorts of things can you foresee being possible with tying different parts of Apple's ecosystem together, Omni included?

    Ken Case: In some ways it's less about what I envisioned and more about what our customers come up with and envision. As they come up with things, they're able to then implement them using this combination behind the Automation Shortcuts, and here are a couple of examples. One that just came up earlier on Slack was somebody was wanting to know, I've got an OmniGraffle document and it has things built up in layers. And I would like to bring this over to PowerPoint or Keynote as different layers that build in from my slide, and have them come in one layer at a time. How can I do that in an automatic way?

    Ken Case: Using Omni Automation, you have the power to do all the bits of this that you wanted to accomplish from OmniGraffle. So you can, using Omni Automation, say, okay, well, I can write this on the Automation Script that takes any canvas in OmniGraffle, and then goes through all of its layers, exports each layer to an image file, and then adds another layer, and exports the combination into another image file, and so on. So now you have the sequence of files that shows all of these layers building up, and then it just saves it as a folder. Well, that's the actions that we've been working toward for a while in Omni Automation.

    Ken Case: But the piece that then Shortcuts integration brings to the picture, is Shortcuts lets that tie into all the rest of the device ecosystem, and that includes things like these triggers that are available. When I switched my focus on my iPhone, I want it to automatically run this shortcut, and now it's going to go ahead and change some of my things around in OmniFocus, so that it matches the focus there. Or when I double tap on the back of my iPhone, it runs this other Shortcut. And then that can call into Omni Automation.

    Ken Case: In this case maybe this Workflow where you're doing stuff, obviously the end goal was not just to get this folder with the slides, it was to take those slides and then pull them into another app for presentation. Shortcuts is the piece that continues on and does that integration with those other apps, because it's the glue that gives you this ecosystem. Both integrating with all of Apple's triggers, including triggers like turning the lights on and off. When I turn my lights on in my office, I want the speaker to go on, that's an automation that Apple has built in all by themselves, but now we can tie that in with these Shortcuts accounts and slides, if you want. And then pull the slides off into Keynote and it supports shortcuts the way we do. So that's where I kind of see this going, is letting people build their own solutions to very tailored problems that meet their own specific needs to help them be more productive. And that's really what all of this is about the end of the day.

    Andrew J. Mason: I so appreciate, Ken, your customer centric vision on this. Again, skating to where the puck is going, this idea of laying this foundation over the last two, three years of Omni Automation, where down at the code level, people can make changes within the system if they want to. But it's also now, with the addition of Shortcuts being available in all different devices, as accessible as this gallery, where you can just kind of drag and drop actions together and see what happens. Sal same question over to you. What possibilities do you get excited about for this?

    Sal Soghoian: I think the egalitarianism of this whole thing, I think you really hit it, is that it brings in a lot of users. Some of the people that are new, some of the people that are advanced, it really does expose the joys and the benefits of automation to all of those Omni customers. Omni Automation has been developing to be very empowering because of the features that it offers. It covers just about all aspects of each one of the applications, but it also can be expressed as just simple plug-ins that you can download from others. On the omni-automation.com/omnifocus website, there's a plug-in collection of 85 plug-ins. With this new ability with Shortcuts, you can have those plug-ins installed and add those into your Shortcut documents and they execute seamlessly. So for people that aren't writing the code, they can just download this and incorporate the abilities to the plugins right into their shortcuts.

    Sal Soghoian: That's the first thing. The second thing is, those that are the more motivated user that's more familiar with scripting and automation, can create the very specific kind of things that they want to do. That's how people are, everybody has their own way of making a peanut butter sandwich, you know? So you have to give them the ability to add the extra things like bananas slices that they want to put in there. And the scope of Omni Automation provides that. And that's really, what's so exciting about this. Omni Automation is very comprehensive when it comes to the Omni applications, but it also reaches outside of that. It supports connectivity through the restful APIs, it supports credentials, it supports storing preferences. So through Shortcuts, the integration to the rest of the operating system and other applications, now becomes part of the Omni Automation experience.

    Sal Soghoian: So you're not limited to just existing within the world of Omni. Now you can talk to the other applications in the other frameworks on the computer or your device, and take advantage of them and incorporate it into a larger recipe. Your recipes now can get more varied and more interesting and more comprehensive. And that's something that everybody wants. Everybody wants more, and you get it through this new architecture. By the way, there are other macOS architectures that, aside from Shortcuts, work really well with Omni Automation. And we'll be talking about them more in the future.

    Andrew J. Mason: That's exciting. Ken, let's turn our attention to OmniFocus 4, specifically. It always blows my mind when you dip into the Slack channel, somebody's asked a question and I guess the idea is that you're inaccessible on this ivory tower. I saw the actual thread you were talking about, where somebody had a question regarding OmniGraffle and you responded by writing a couple of lines of code for them. I think it's almost surprising saying my gosh, you're this accessible, you're a person. Which again, speaks to the courage of co-creation here. We're not just developing the software in secret, and then bringing out to the light of day saying, here you go, this is an iterative process where it's, what do you think? And then getting that feedback and coming back around with it. What have you learned? What are you surprised by? And what's being confirmed for you, so far, in regards to OmniFocus 4?

    Ken Case: Where we started this process of using SwiftUI, was really trying to take a lot of the power that we've had in our Mac app to the iPad and iPhone. And the most natural target of course, is to start with the iPad. Because when you're talking about bringing this Mac power, you're looking at a larger screen and different panes of information and so on. So we brought a lot of that experience over to the iPad. And that was where we were really focused when we started this TestFlight process.

    Ken Case: We got a lot of things that we did pretty well right at the beginning, but we also then quickly got a lot of the Apple people who are okay, well, I want to use this on my iPhone, as well. And oh, but this experience doesn't work here very well. And we've heard a lot of great suggestions from people along the way of how can we make this work better? How can we do inline editing fields that let you work with stuff right there on your phone, without having to tap back and forth into different sort of modding panes, and some of it might slow you down.

    Ken Case: It's always great to hear from customers, some people will come with a big, long laundry list of the things that they see different in the app. Most people are pretty understanding as they do that, I should note. Some people just give a quick note to say, Hey, this is looking great, or, Hey, I don't like where this is going and I think I'm gonna go try something else. That's actually the, sort of, saddest thing for me because here we're still very much in the experimental phase. And if people get turned off to the future app, that has not really been built yet, just based off of experiments that we're doing this early, the thing is, I hope that they come back. Let's put it that way, right. As they see where we end up in that they don't just tune out and forget the whole thing just because of where we were in some brief point in time.

    Ken Case: So far, of course it is really encouraging when we do see people come back. But every time I see somebody else get frustrated, I thought, okay, what can we do to improve that something, so the next person that comes along isn't frustrated. And that's one of the big benefits of having thousands of people looking at this, and to be inviting new people all the time, is you get those first impressions, not just people who are used to it because they've been using for months.

    Andrew J. Mason: Which, in my mind, it's almost like the software development, this co-creation is a living, breathing organism. We're just seeing snapshots as the software's developing through the dark room and to be able to raise my hand and say, yeah, I want in, I want to be a part of this process as it's being developed is almost unheard of, who does that?

    Sal Soghoian: Wouldn't that be great if other companies did that too? If, you could have a say in how your favorite car's going to be made. It's really incredible what Omni has done, the openness and the way the company communicates, really reveals that their core desire is to please their customers and deliver them products to really change their lives. I'm very impressed with how they deal with that.

    Andrew J. Mason: There's a level of authenticity there. If you're willing to build out there in the open and just okay, it's not done, but here it is. What do you guys think of it?

    Sal Soghoian: That's very courageous.

    Andrew J. Mason: It is. It's very courageous, it's rare. Sal, if somebody is interested in taking the next steps in automation, they maybe don't know how to go about that. Do you have any first tips or first ways that they can get involved in dipping their toes into that pool and figuring out, what does it look like to start automating different things with Omni?

    Sal Soghoian: Yes, we do, as a matter of fact. If you visit omni-automation.com/shortcuts, you'll find example Shortcuts for each one of the Omni apps there, that can get you started. Simple things that explain the concepts about how the data's being passed, how it's being received, the things you can do to enhance that, the creativity you can use with your own automations. It's a good place to go to get that initial overview with simple follow along examples that you can use. I would start there and I'll bet you in no time, if you join some of the other Omni forums, you're going to find a lot of creativity coming out, because people are going to really adapt to this and really start pushing it. It's just so freeing and empowering an experience and so unique. I think a lot of people are going to jump onto this quickly.

    Andrew J. Mason: Sal, I absolutely agree with that. And Ken, if folks are interested in finding out more or joining the OmniFocus 4 TestFlight. How can they do that?

    Ken Case: OmniFocus 4 TestFlight update. There's a blog post that Ainsley made back in August, before she went on maternity leave. In that blog post, she talked about some real progress updated at that time. And it's interesting now to compare that with where we are now and how much has changed and been done since then. But it includes links that show you how to get on a TestFlight, so anyone who's interested can go to our blog, to the OmniFocus 4 TestFlight update page, and sign up from there.

    Andrew J. Mason: And we'll make sure to include the link to that blog post here in the show notes as well on the Omni Show page. Any final thoughts, gentleman?

    Ken Case: You just said earlier about the Shortcuts that really we're just getting started. We added a few small actions that integrate Shortcuts with Omni Automation. Of course, customers bring a lot of this story as well. So as customers build things, that's a piece of getting started. But another piece of this is that there's a lot of room, I think, for us to advance our Shortcuts even further and build easier to use Shortcuts actions that are more tailored to people who aren't writing code or don't want to install any plug-ins. They just want to be able to, for example, find a canvas in OmniGraffle and do that export that we talked about. If we make that as easy as possible for customers, skies the limit. We can just keep building all sorts of new automations and making them easier for people to find and use. I look forward to updating this. It's not the only project that we're working on at Omni, but clearly we've invested a lot of time in it over the years because we think it is important to give that power to our customers.

    Sal Soghoian: So your feedback is really important. Those of you that are listening right now, who this is triggered your imagination, we'd love to hear what kind of Shortcuts you'd like, what kinds of things you need, what would really work for you, what you're excited about. Contact us and let us know, so we can plan for this new future that's coming up here that's happening. This real advance in automation for everybody.

    Andrew J. Mason: Ken and Sal, thank you again so much for joining us on the show today. I just admire your transparency and excited to see what's coming.

    Sal Soghoian: Thank you so much.

    Andrew J. Mason: Hey, and thank all of you for listening today, too. As always, you can drop us a line @TheOmniShow on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you there. You can also find out everything that's happening with The Omni Group at omnigroup.com/blog.