With connected technology coming to the fore, we caught up with IFTTT co-founder Linden Tibbets to see where his automation app fits in...

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IFTTT – short for If This Then That – is an app that connects other apps, products and services that wouldn’t otherwise play together. IFTTT has been busy changing people’s lives for five years now, but with 2016 set to be the year of the Internet of Things, it’s only about to get even more powerful.

With automation and smart home products having taken centre stage at CES 2016, we caught up with IFTTT co-founder Linden Tibbets to find out more about the inspiration behind the service, see what the future holds, and to find out how your connected life is about to get smarter than ever before…

Automatic for the people

Always forget to mute your phone before you have a meeting? IFTTT can fix that for you by creating a ‘recipe’ to automate the whole process. Tell the app: ‘IF I have a meeting scheduled in my calendar, THEN switch my phone to silent.’ It’s super simple, and you’ll never have to worry about it again. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. IFTTT can auto log your daily steps, brew you a coffee when you wake up and even turn off the lights when you leave for work.

But how did such an all-encompassing service get started?

“I was driven by stereotypical computer-kid dreams: video games, Pixar, LucasArts…”

“I always knew I wanted to be here in the Bay Area,” says Linden from his home in San Francisco. “I was driven by stereotypical computer-kid dreams: video games, Pixar, LucasArts – that kind of thing. I did computer engineering in school but I got really interested in design as well, so I got my foot in the door at a design firm and that was where I came into contact with a lot of the ideas that eventually led to IFTTT.

“The key idea is around ‘creative control,’” he explains. “We enjoy incredible amounts of freedom with how we use physical objects and often we’ll be able to use these objects outside of the range of what they were designed for – for example: taking off your sweater and tying it around your waist, or putting a pencil behind your ear. And each one of these modifications is pretty similar to what we call ‘programming’ in the digital world.

“In that sense, everyone in the real world is already very adept at ‘programming’ – we make these little programming decisions every day, we just take them for granted. But as we go from the physical world into the digital world, programming becomes a specialised skill, and most people aren’t able to make fluent connections and decisions with their digital services.

“This imbalance, if you like, was the idea that led to IFTTT. The question we started with was: ‘how do we take something that programmers are doing all day every day and present it to non-programmers in a way that’s accessible and easy to use?’ So that’s exactly what IFTTT does.”

The tip of the iceberg…

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All clued up? The real genius of IFTTT is that it doesn’t just give you control over your apps, but that it works seamlessly with hundreds of connected gadgets too, including Nest Protect, Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue. And this is where things get exciting, because there are more connected appliances and devices hitting store shelves than ever before:

“There are so many different trends right now,” says Linden. “There’s wearables, the Internet of Things, voice assistants like Siri, Cortana and Amazon Alexa, augmented reality, virtual reality, connected cars… the list goes on and on.

“IFTTT, and IFTTT’s new sister app DO, are about taking these individual silos, and getting them to work together.”

“But all these trends have one thing in common: for us to get the maximum value out of each one, these new ways of computing need to tap into more data – the data that’s currently living across all the different services that we’ve surrounded ourselves with, from our calendar and email, to our Nest Thermostat or our connected garage door opener. IFTTT, and IFTTT’s new sister app DO, are about taking these individual silos, and getting them to work together.”

DO takes your recipes and lets you make them happen at the touch of a button. Want to be able to turn all the lights off in your house at once, for instance? Link DO to your Philips Hue lighting system and set up the recipe as normal, and DO will give your one button to control every bulb at once.

“IFTTT is really just the tip of the iceberg,” says Linden. “DO is a new way of achieving the same goal, but I think it’s even easier to understand and pick up. You take a service, and something you want to do, and you press the DO button to make it happen. It’s a new, simple entryway into this world of connected services.”

“Making things simpler is important” says Linden. Although apps like IFTTT and DO are starting to break down the walls between connected technology and everyday life, he believes that complicated setup processes stop people from getting involved. He points to account creation as a clear example of the difference simplification can make: “We’ve solved a lot of problems over the last couple of years with account creation on mobile,” he says. “Now when you sign up for a new service, you can do it through Facebook or Google instantly, instead of having to enter your full details every time. That’s lowered the barriers and introduced more people to a bunch of new services.

“Connected products offer the same challenge. Anybody who’s bought an appliance that needs an internet connection has struggled at some point to just get it to access your Wi-Fi or connect to your Bluetooth. Solving that initial connection problem and those complex installation procedures is going to open this world up to so many more people.”

The future?

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“Tech companies are open to what we’re doing in a very big way,” says Linden. “We’re really committed to our developer platform (that sits behind the IFTTT and DO apps), and we’ve had tremendous interest from developers wanting to work with it since it launched in private around a year ago. Just last week we launched eight new channels in one day, which makes 270 in total.

“The world that we’re building to is a world in which every individual, connected object, or service is really a platform, and one that developers can tap into to tell their own interesting stories.”

And, with IFTTT and other tech companies pushing these boundaries every day, it looks like the connected future that Linden envisions may come to fruition pretty soon. But IFTTT is not a company to sit on its laurels – Linden and his team have plenty more in store for users and developers alike:

“We’re continuing to invest in the mobile app as well as underneath the hood with our developer platform. Over the course of the next year, we’ll have made some really big new steps on both of those fronts, opening up the developer platform as well as making our user experience even better.

“We’re not quite ready to talk about what that looks like and how that works,” Linden says in closing, “but we’re actively working towards it, and we’re incredibly excited about it.”

Automate your life: Check out six ways you can streamline your day with tech, right here!

By Pete Dreyer