Quietly, IFTTT has become an indispensable tool for a growing number of internet users, making connections between web services including Facebook, Gmail, Dropbox and a host of others. The name stands for If This Then That, a phrase that represents the way its “triggers” (this) and “actions” (that) are used for the different “channels”. If this happens in Facebook, do that in Dropbox. If this is posted on Instagram or SoundCloud, do that with it in my Gmail inbox. And so on.
Now there’s an app for that (and this). IFTTT’s iPhone app was released this morning on Apple‘s App Store as a free download. It helps IFTTT users build new recipes – the term it uses for the connections forged using the service – with optional push notifications when those recipes are triggered.
It also adds three new channels from within Apple’s iOS software: Photos, Contacts and Reminders. A small but potentially useful step in opening iPhones up that little bit more beyond Apple’s own services.
Chief executive Linden Tibbets says the inspiration for IFTTT came from the way we interact with physical objects in the world around us, and use them to solve problems.
“Using your foot to hold a door open, standing a coffee cup on papers to stop them blowing across your desk. Simple modifications of your environment that everyone does 100 times a day,” he says.
“That same behaviour has been largely missing once you moved to the abstract digital software space. People were getting acclimatised with these tools: sending emails, posting tweets, uploading photos. But to define how these things interacted with one another, you needed a four-year computer science degree.”
It’s not that all these web services – IFTTT currently supports 67 and is aiming to add at least one a week – couldn’t work together: they had APIs for that very purpose. It’s just that you had to be a developer to do it.
“We wanted to build a service to solve that problem, and empower people to do way more with the services and devices that they were already using,” says Tibbets.
“That’s what we’ve been working on for the last year and a half: identifying more and more connections and interactions between these objects.”
Recipes for success
I’ve been using IFTTT for a while now, but still sometimes struggle to explain the concept to friends and family. Actually, though, the simplest way may be to list some of the recipes that have been created using it.
One that’s fresh for the app is a recipe to save your iOS photos automatically to your Dropbox cloud storage. You can backup your Instagram snaps by saving them to Flickr or emailing them to yourself.
You can add a note to your Google Calendar whenever you add a new contact on your iPhone; automatically post links on a Facebook page when new stories go live on your WordPress blog; connect fitness devices made by Jawbone and Withings to a host of web services; and…
This is the point about IFTTT: as it adds more channels, so the possible number of recipes grows ever larger, from the big “how do I make sure all my photos end up backed up in the same place?” examples to super-niche tools.
One limitation on that growth is that for now, IFTTT is adding the channels itself. “We want to connect literally anything that has an API. if it’s connected to the internet in some way, we can build a channel around it,” says Tibbets.
“Right now we can only build so many ourselves, so one of the very-obvious things we’re working on is how do we open it up for other people to plug in their devices and services?”
The new app is iPhone-only for now, but Tibbets says that IFTTT realises it needs to move onto other platforms like Android as quickly as possible. The company recently redesigned its website to be responsive, to work better on smartphones and tablets, as a step in that direction.
“Mobile has always been in our plans. This app has been in the works for the better part of the last year,” says Tibbets, who’s backed up by his colleague Devin Foley, who led the app project.
“A large proportion of traffic to our website has always been mobile, even before we had the mobile-optimised website,” he says. “We wanted to provide them with a better experience.”
Tibbets chips back in. “What’s taken us a while to figure out is not just how to make IFTTT.com work on mobile, but how can we really take advantage and think about what IFTTT is about for the mobile? This isn’t just IFTTT.com for your phone, it’s really the first step towards what will become IFTTT version two.”
That includes a more-prominent element of curation, with the app suggesting recipes that people may find useful.
More than 100k recipes have been created and shared so far on IFTTT, so picking out the best and putting them in front of users will be increasingly important – especially if IFTTT wants to appeal beyond geeks like me.
“We’re working hard to identify the recipes that are going to be incredibly useful for anybody using these services, and then making them easier for that audience to find and use them,” says Tibbets.
“When you have so many different options, you have to make sure people feel this sense of quick satisfaction. People get very little time these days, so they need to be told some things before they’ll get confident enough to dig through the rest of what you do.”
There are two interesting trends in the kinds of channels that IFTTT is adding. First: hardware, such as the fitness gadgets, but also Philips’ Hue lighting and Belkin’s WeMo home automation gadgets.
“A lot of the growth in the channels we’re going to see in the next couple of years is going to happen in the physical world,” says Tibbets.
“We think you’re going to be able to do some really cool stuff, and a lot of those things can’t be prescribed from the top down. There are hundreds of things somebody might want to do with that connected toothbrush, so let the people on the ground decide how that should work.”
That might not be the best example, if you’re a connected-toothbrush cynic (and let’s be honest, most people are). Connected TVs and set-top boxes, games consoles, home automation, streaming hi-fis and other devices have plenty of potential to play nicer with web services, though.
The second area of interest for IFTTT is media. The company worked with ESPN in 2012 for the Olympic Games, enabling users to create recipes to deliver notifications (via SMS, email, Twitter, Facebook and other means) when specific triggers happened: “Send me an SMS whenever Team GB wins a medal” for example.
Other media may follow. “For someone like The Guardian or the New York Times, what they’re really looking to do is get their media out there, read and consumed – or at least clicked back to,” says Tibbets.
“IFTTT gives people very powerful filter tool about how they want to consume that. It could be articles by a specific author, or which mention a specific topic or category. Think of it as a way to follow that content with any service, whether it’s Pocket, Instapaper, email or SMS. Media is a really interesting space for us.”