How Apple Programmer Sal Soghoian Got Apps Talking to Each Other

“Stop!” Jobs shouted. Just like that, he wanted it on every computer. “I want robots for icons.”

A few months later, before Soghoian hopped on stage at WWDC 2004 to unveil his team’s latest creation, he and Jobs ran through rehearsal after rehearsal, aiming for precision each time. “He’d tell me ‘No, Saul, you want to do this,'” Soghoian says. “He never quite got my name right.”

That June, Jobs announced the software and introduced Soghoian to the crowd at WWDC. “I’d like to invite Saul up on the stage, whom you all know.”

Soghoian guided the crowd through the same demo he showed Jobs, the same way you proudly flaunted your elementary school art project to your parents before slapping it on the fridge.

It worked just the way Soghoian had hoped. He strutted off the WWDC stage with a smile on his face. The next day, he found a new name tag on his office door: “Saul, whom you all know.”

Automator made its debut as part of Mac OS X Tiger on April 29, 2005, robot icon and all.

Tiny Tasks

By 2011, much of computing had shifted to mobile devices. After creating a few apps for iPhone, software developer Greg Pierce was itching for a better way to get things done on iOS.

At the time, iOS apps had no way to share information with each other. Even copying and pasting between apps was a hassle. Getting work done on the platform was a time-sucking, rather than time-saving, endeavor.

iOS didn’t have a system dictionary, so if you were reading an article and didn’t recognize a word, you’d have to highlight the word, copy it to the clipboard, switch apps, paste it into Google to search for the definition, then tap your way back to the article once you were done. To Pierce, that was too much of a hassle. He wanted to create a way for other developers to pull definitions straight from his dictionary app Terminology, hoping such an integration could add value to any iOS app.

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After a few months of planning, he had a barebones language that allowed apps to share strings of text (word definitions, phone numbers) with each other, and tell another app what to do with that text. His method, now called x-callback-url, worked just fine, but it wasn’t very useful without a base of apps it could work with. Marco Arment, a co-founder of Tumblr who had since moved to his own app, the read-it-later service Instapaper, jumped at the opportunity to incorporate the new code. After x-callback-url was plugged into both apps, you could highlight a word in Instapaper, tap on a menu item to look up a word, and you’d automatically be bounced into Terminology with the correct definition front and center.

Other developers had taken a swing at the concept, but Pierce was the first to develop a way to run multiple processes back-to-back, like relay runners passing a baton, so you could share chunks of text between several apps by just tapping a few buttons. With that, automation scripting had found its way to iOS.

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