What Happened to Shortcuts?

I have spoken a lot about the Shortcuts app, and for good reason. It is the bridge to automation for the iPhone and iPad.

One of the best things about Shortcuts is that you can share ones you have created via an iCloud link. It’s great when you want to resolve an issue for someone via Shortcuts. The only problem is when it doesn’t work. That is what happened late March 23rd.

What Happened?

In the evening of March 23rd people began to notice that some Shortcut links weren’t showing anything when you click them on your iPhone or iPad.

Instead of a shortcut populating, there would be an error saying Shortcut not found. The shortcut link may be invalid, or it may have been deleted.” This was happening with every single shortcut with the exception of those that were created less than a week ago.

Libraries like those made at MacStories, Matthew Cassinelli’s Shortcut Catalog, and shortcuts by Christopher Lawley became unusable due to this error from Apple and the Shortcuts team.

Thankfully, later that day Apple gave the following statement to MacStories when they reached out for comment.

We are aware of an issue where previously shared shortcuts are currently unavailable. Newly shared shortcuts are available, and we are working to restore previously shared shortcuts as quickly as possible.

On March 25th, it seemed that shortcuts from MacStories had been slowly enabled again, confirming that the Apple team is working on the issue.

In fact, when I try to open any shortcut on MacStories, Matthew Cassinelli’s website, or shortcuts made by Christopher Lawley I am yet to find something that is still broken.

While the issue should have never happened in the first place, I am happy to see such a quick turnaround to addressing the issue by Apple and the Shortcuts team.

You Are in Apple’s Yard

While this issue has been addressed, I worry about the future of sharing shortcuts as time goes on.

As of now, the only way you can import Shortcuts is through an iCloud link someone created within the app.

Before iOS 13 there was a time where you could export a shortcut as a file and save it, which was fantastic because you could export shortcuts you weren’t using but wanted to keep and import them as needed.

You even could have multiple shortcuts in a single .zip folder and batch import those shortcuts at will. It was great for when you had shortcuts for a specific task or agenda. For example, you are at a conference and have shortcuts that makes it easier to share and save contact info with others. When done with the conference you can lighten up your library by exporting the shortcuts and save them for safe keeping for the next conference.

When iOS 13 came out Shortcuts removed the ability to import shortcuts via email or as a file. It was only available via iCloud links. Which is why it was such a disaster when the links of Shortcuts broke across the board last week. It effectively made every shortcut on websites, libraries, blogs, etc. completely useless unless you made a new shortcut link for them (given you still had the Shortcut in question in your library).

Bottom line is this blunder by Apple showed how Shortcuts users are playing in someone else’s yard. You have no control over when you get kicked out Apple’s yard or not, and that makes automation on iOS and iPadOS fickle, frustrating, and nerve-wracking.

I haven’t had this much anxiety about hoarding Shortcuts since it was announced that Workflow, the predecessor to Shortcuts, had been acquired by Apple. When that news broke many people in the community began to assume the worst. We worried Apple would discontinue the app and absorb the team for something else in the Apple ecosystem.

How Apple Can Fix This

The problems that occurred with Shortcuts should never happen again, that much is clear. That said, there are a few more steps Apple can take to make sure the foundation for Shortcuts stays intact.

Allow For Import and Export of Shortcuts via Files

The first is to allow for more ways users can import and export shortcuts. It is clear that iCloud links may not always be reliable, but that shouldn’t be the only reason for this change.

The other reason we should allow Shortcuts to import and export as files is because it allows for an easier way to import multiple shortcuts at once. It is much easier to import a .zip file with all your shortcuts than to scrape a bunch of URLs and import them one by one.

This may sound like a niche case, but if it were easier to import and export shortcuts in multiple ways I feel that all users of Shortcuts would benefit. More people can share and save libraries of Shortcuts, creating multiple niche shortcut libraries and allowing users to import them all.

Make a Road Map for Shortcuts

Apple loves secrecy and NDAs. While I am not saying they aren’t good for tech companies to have, it is often at the expense of the users. What I mean by this is that we don’t know what is going to happen with Shortcuts. It is clear that it has some backend changes in the works, but we truly have no clue what is happening until WWDC or an update to iOS comes out. One thing that I love about Indie developers is they offer roadmaps. OmniGroup, the company behind OmniFocus and OmniOutliner, give roadmaps for their apps all the time. Not only does it set a clear and defined goal for the developers, but it assures users that the companies behind the tools we use every day have plans to continue development of the app and features to come.

Apple needs to assure the users of Shortcuts that this important and necessary app is staying with Apple and will continue to allow everyone to create and share their work. I think Federico Viticci said it best when he wrote this in his iOS 13 review:

My only hope is that Apple remembers that the creativity of Shortcuts users is not the enemy. Part of what made Workflow special, which is still true for Shortcuts today, was the community — the people who advocated for automation, helped others by sharing shortcuts, and made iOS a more enjoyable operating system by enhancing it with Shortcuts. To put an end to that creativity and communal aspect of Shortcuts would be in Apple’s power, but it would also be a shame. I’m happy that sharing is still supported in Shortcuts today; I hope Apple won’t go beyond what they’ve done this year.

Have a Sanctioned Community to help improve Shortcuts

Speaking of community, I think it is time for Apple to create one. I am not sure what that would look like, I surely hope it is nothing like iTunes Ping.

I truly think this is a pipe dream, but it would be spectacular for Apple to have an official community or chatroom for people to talk about things like Shortcuts, automation, apps, and more.

Apple has been hiring tons of content creators as editors for the App Store over the years. With that in mind, I feel the next step is to have a place for Apple users to talk and perhaps be a part of the community with Apple employees.

Twitter has this to a point, there are times when I see Apple people talking to Apple employees, and it is interesting to see that. However, I feel it is too few and far between.

Apple might be using data to drive where they want their teams to focus on, or even focus groups at times. But having town halls and open chats where both user and developer can be a part of it — in a sanctioned space — might be the missing link needed to bridge the gap between user and developer. Apple does listen at times when users want changes made, but I worry that there is more of a vacuum for developers inside Apple than transparency with the users.

What Now?

Shortcuts is back to its status quo. Things are how they were before March 23rd, but that doesn’t mean the ground beneath Shortcuts users is still solid. Consider saving shortcuts you use and be more stingy when it comes to deleting them. If you do want to lighten the load of your shortcuts you can always file it away in a folder. Label it as something like Safe Keeping” and dump anything you don’t want in there.

Wrap Up

I will be continuing to use Shortcuts and making new workflows to share with others. I sincerely believe that this event was an anomaly, but I also hope that Apple and the Shortcuts team takes this as a learning experience. I want them to make the necessary steps to quell the worry Shortcuts users are having after this and reassure us in some way that we will be seeing a long and prosperous life of automation on iOS and iPadOS devices.