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    LAB NOTES
    LAB NOTES
    LN 021
    01•16•2022

    Automations

    So far, we’ve considered an OS of the future that has these core pieces:

    1. Items — the fundamental unit of data we meaningfully interact with in our personal computing. They are each of a certain type (which might even be of our own creation), and can be used freely with all other items, regardless of type or source (for example, items reference other items often; composition is how we get many of the larger item types: task lists consist of tasks, podcasts consist of episodes, and so forth; yet any item can refer to another in this way: one task may be found in a project, on a date, and in a task list).

    2. Views — the components that render our items, usually visually, to make their data (and often their most pertinent actions) available to us. New or alternate views can be installed from third-parties or created by the user, and views are swappable: any view for an item type can be used with any item of that type.

    3. Services — the programs which bring items into our system or allow us to store or sync our items. Though they may come bundled with default views for their items, services are independent from the views that render the items they bring into our system. Compared to today’s OSs, this allows users far greater flexibility within their personal computing environments, and each developer the opportunity to focus on the work they are best-suited for.

    4. Actions — the actions that users can take on items, which are made available by the system and by services. These are also independent, allowing for wide exploration on how actions can be displayed and used within the interface(s).


    With these pieces in place, user-defined automation becomes straightforward, and immensely powerful: we can remix and reuse these pieces to define behavior we want our OS to exhibit in support of our various workflows.

    An automation is made up of:

    1. A trigger — the event that causes an automation to run. This could be the presence of a new item, such as a newly received email, or it could be an action, such as when a task item is added to (referenced by) a date item. It can contain conditions so that it only triggers when desired (such as when an email from a specific sender is received).

    2. A result — the results we want to see. We can use any system actions, such as creating relationships between items, or any of the actions made available by the services that we use, such as sending an email.

    Item actions are how services expose all of their functionality, so there is great freedom for automations to make use of the actions available on any service.

    We’ve already mentioned one simple but powerful use case for automations in LN 019: notifications. In response to a new item of a certain type (the trigger), given that the item matches the conditions, a notification is added to the user’s notification list, and potentially presented on their home screen, status bar, or other highly visible place (the actions). This is in contrast to today’s modern OS notifications, which are issued by apps at the app vendor’s discretion (often a distinctly non-personal computing experience).

    A simple example from my own use: I’ve built an app to track my daily habits (it’s called Simple Habits — you can try it out here, and you can read more about it in this thread). It helps me make sure that I’m getting all the inputs into and outputs from my core work that I’ve learned I need. Every day, I check off the habits that I’ve completed, but many of them could be automatically checked off with an automation. For example, I try to write 1,000+ words each morning — that’s the first habit in my list. It would be relatively straightforward to create an automation which checks this habit off once I’ve reached my minimum word count every morning.

    You can preemptively use automations to organize items which don’t exist yet: Your system could automatically add new music from a favorite artist to a playlist, or organize incoming emails from a client into the workspace you use for their project.

    Automations are one of those things that let the mind run wild with creativity; if past automation tools are any indicator, these examples I’ve laid out are going to be among the least imaginative. I’m curious to see, when this system is in others’ hands, what automations people build.


    This kind of automation in your personal computing domain is possible because of the way this OS of the future works. Automations are a natural extension of the itemized OS, and their impressive flexibility is a natural byproduct of its design. You can define triggers like new items appearing or new connections being made, and you can set results using all of the actions available from your system and the third-party services you use.

    Something spark a thought? Send me an email or come chat on Twitter.


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