Give Your Online Life a Lift with IFTTT

How many times have you come across a new technology or service and said to yourself, “That’s ridiculous, only a real geek would use that!”, only to find yourself happily benefiting from the same innovation a year or two later?

Well, can you say “the Web” or “text messaging” or “Facebook photo albums” or “RSS readers” or “Netflix streaming”? At one time or another, all of these technologies were limited to obscure corners of nerddom.

I confess that I still have the skeptic’s reaction all the time. To save myself embarrassment later, I’m usually private about my dismissals. (On the other hand, some of my public ones have been doozies—I viciously panned the original Kindle about a year before I got one and made it my main reading tool, and more recently, I said I’d never buy an iPad mini, which I’m already beginning to regret.) But today I want to tell you about a geek tool that I’ve been using unreservedly, and that everyone should know about. It’s called IFTTT, and it’s a great way to make your digital life a little easier and more interesting, by marrying other services that don’t normally interact.

The acronym rhymes with “gift” and stands for “If This, Then That.” As the name suggests, the service lets you set up prearranged actions prompted by specific conditions—“if this happens, then make that happen.” A specific action on IFTTT is called a recipe, and users can create their own recipes or choose from a large set of existing ones. All of them involve the communications and productivity tools most of us use every day, from e-mail to social networking to cloud storage. For example, you can set up a recipe saying, “If the weather report says it’s going to rain today, then send me a text message,” or “If I star an e-mail message in Gmail, then send a copy to my Evernote account.”

If This, Then That - diagram from IFTTT.comSan Francisco-based IFTTT was founded by former IDEO designer Linden Tibbetts, and the ingredients for the service are the site’s 58 “channels”—the online services that can either trigger an action or be the target of an action. Name a popular consumer-oriented online tool and it’s probably got a channel in IFTTT, including Craigslist, Evernote, Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare, Gmail, Google Reader, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Twitter, and YouTube. For people who run their businesses on more specialized cloud-based tools, there’s a competing service called Zapier that covers even more channels—138 at last count, including services like Asana, Basecamp, Chargify, HubSpot, and PayPal. Zapier charges for access to certain “premium” services, while IFTTT is totally free.

What makes tools like IFTTT and Zapier possible is the trend toward open APIs, or application programming interfaces. If the cloud economy is like a big neighborhood full of fancy homes, APIs are the doggie doors on the back stoops that allow information from third parties to come and go at will. It’s standard procedure today for developers of Web or mobile applications to publish the specs of their APIs so that outsiders know how to format their information to fit through the doors.

The liberating thing about cloud applications, of course, is that they make it so easy for us consumers to generate, share, store, and retrieve digital content, wherever we may be and whatever device we may have at hand. But having tasted this freedom, we’d like even more of it. It’s easy to post a photo to Facebook from your mobile phone, for example. Why shouldn’t it be equally easy to e-mail that same photo to a friend who isn’t on Facebook, or to store a copy on Dropbox, and to have all this happen automatically?

This kind of stuff doesn’t happen automatically right now because the major cloud applications are still mostly siloed inside the companies that own and run them. It’s not Facebook’s job to help you be a better customer of Dropbox. Instagram has no special obligation to let you share your photos on Twitter. But thanks to the API revolution, there are … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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