MacStories Selects 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award

MacStories Selects 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award

When we chose the second annual lifetime achievement award winner, there was no doubt in my mind that it was going to be a draft. Developed and maintained by Greg Pierce of Agile Tortoise, Drafts has been the place where text starts on iOS for nearly a decade now. Times have certainly changed, but drafts remain. Over the years it has evolved into so much more than the simple text tool it once was.

As it has evolved, the most beautiful thing about Drafts has been its fervent dedication to its original mission statement. If you’re about to write some text—any text—on your iPhone or iPad (and even, in modern times, your Mac), you should open Drafts. The app is so focused on text capture that by default it opens a new blank “draft” every time you open the app.

Writing text is only as useful as what you do with it, so the second pillar of the Drafts quest is the action menu; an endlessly customizable list of actions that let you manipulate and send text from within the app to virtually anywhere else you can think of. From random web services to other native apps on your devices, Drafts can almost certainly deliver your text. As your words are delivered throughout your digital life, you can take comfort in knowing that you can always search and find anything you’ve written by looking up your drafts.

It amazes me that after hearing that pitch (and even personally writing about it) over and over for over a decade, I still find it an alluring idea. Draft’s longevity is a testament to the foresight of Pierce’s original vision. I’m incredibly happy to see this app continue for so long, and it’s an honor to present it with MacStories’ Lifetime Achievement award.

A bit of history

Draft will always hold a special place in my heart because it is deeply intertwined with the story of how I came to write for MacStories over eight years ago. In the far more limited era of iOS, Drafts pioneered a method of communication between apps that mesmerized even my high school self.

Draft defined a brief but special iOS era. Living through it and being a part of it legitimately changed my whole life. Join me, we’re going to dip into the weeds only slightly here as we dive back into that history.

The early days of iOS automation

Long before modern sharing extensions enabled cutting-edge capabilities, apps on iOS were nearly shut out from communicating with each other. Each app ran in a seemingly impenetrable “sandbox,” a boon for security but a nightmare for automation enthusiasts. The unique way that some data could get through the walls was a simple method called “URL schemes”.

Each app can define a URL scheme, and it can be called as a normal web address. However, instead of opening a website, it will open a native iOS app. If you had draft installed back then, you could write drafts:// into the iPhone’s browser, and when you hit Go you’d leave Safari and launch into Drafts. Simple.

Just like regular URLs, you can also send some text via search parameters, which an app can then read and use to perform an action. For example, back then one could have called the Instapaper URL form and given it a link using something like instapaper:// This can open the Instapaper app and save as a web page to read later.

Initially, this was a one-way street. An app could call another app’s URL scheme to “automate” something in the other app, but in the end the user was left looking at the other app instead of continuing to use the app they were running the automation from. For example, if you pasted a URL into Drafts that you wanted to add to Instapaper, Drafts could call the Instapaper URL form and send the link over, but you’d be stuck staring at Instapaper when you’d probably be back in Drafts.

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Recognizing an untapped potential, Drafts’ Greg Pierce and Instapaper’s Marco Arment collaborated to create the “X-Callback-URL” protocol. It defined a method where URL forms could be encoded as search parameters, and then passed to another app. Once the app completed the first action (like Instapaper saving that link in the example above), it would then decode and perform the next action in the URL -en (for example, to call drafts:// to return the user to draft). Likewise, an app like Drafts can perform an action in another app and cause the user to end up back in Drafts when the chosen automation is complete.

In modern times, it is difficult to describe how ground-breaking this possibility was for automatists and tinkerers. As more apps implemented the X-Callback URL, more opportunities for automation opened up. Since URL form automation could only work with text, Drafts was the perfect catalyst to start iOS automation.

In early 2013, Federico was one of the first to start using Drafts to tie even more than just two apps together. He built an automation that combined three different apps. I read his article during my senior year of high school and thought I could beat him. After a few days of plugging it in during Spanish class, I was able to link 5 apps together.

Running early URL form automations was weird and cool. Since each app had to actually be opened to run its action, you’d sit back and watch the screen as it bounced through each app that was part of the chain, quickly and automatically. Finally, it would go back to Drafts when everything was done.

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That year I started my first blog, which was almost entirely dedicated to automations built using drafts. I finally decided to write one huge guide to URL schemes and Draft actions, which Federico caught wind of before I published and got me to bring it to MacStories. It was my very first story here. Little did I know at the time how much it would lead to.

The modern drafts

Draft’s rich history is rare and impressive, but the app has never stagnated in the years since. Pierce has built his text tool into a sustainable business, with apps on all Apple platforms. Drafts is now free to download and use, but includes an in-app purchase for Drafts Pro, which unlocks themes, custom actions, workspaces, and more. Draft workspaces let you set up advanced filters on your text and turn the app into a fully customizable view for different areas of your life.

It also integrates, of course, with Shortcuts and the Sharing Sheet, giving users access to the more modern paths to advanced automation. We’ve come a long way from URL schemes (although they still have some use cases for certain automations).

It gives me so much joy to see this app that means so much to me and others still around today, and to see how much more powerful it has become. We spoke with Greg Pierce this week on AppStories about Drafts, and it’s clear he has no plans to stop pushing it forward. I can’t wait to see where it goes in the years to come.

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