Innovation

How IFTTT is taking a big swing at being a connective tissue for IoT

IFTTT co-founder and CEO Linden Tibbets sat down with TechRepublic to talk about how the platform can evolve into more than an automation service.

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Image: Shiva Kilaru

It's an unseasonably warm September day in San Francisco, and IFTTTco-founder and CEO Linden Tibbets is propping open the door to a small meeting room overlooking Market Street with a box of tissues.

Call it a minor lifehack, an instance outside the bounds of functional fixedness. Either way, it plays at one of the fairly big ideas behind the four-year-old automation service: making connections between objects in an environment to make life a little easier.

For the unfamiliar, IFTTT is split into two apps, as of February 2015. The first is called IF, and is what longer-term users are already familiar with — it's an app that focuses on automation. Users create conditional statements, or "recipes," that follow the structure "If this happens, then do that" using channels that are basically integrations with different apps and features. So for example, a user could create a recipe that says "If someone tags me in a photo on Facebook, save the photo to my Dropbox." Or, "If I leave work, send a text to my significant other."

The DO app is a bit simpler. It's essentially a button users can press that triggers an action, like setting a thermostat to 70 degrees, logging your location on a map, or even placing a call to their own phone to get out of an awkward situation.

There are currently more than 200 channels including Nest, Spotify, Amazon Alexa, Google Docs, Philips Hue, and Instagram. Users can publish the recipes they use, so it's easy to get ideas if you're not entirely sure what to set up. But with all those channels, creativity kicks in quickly.

Creativity is something Tibbets found himself chasing. He and his brother Alexander, who also works at IFTTT, are originally from Texas. Linden went to school at Santa Clara University and got a degree in computer engineering. At one time, the big dream was to make video games, and he even landed a job at Electronic Arts. That ended after a few months and after feeling like he'd like to better couple creativity with his computer skills, he turned his focus more toward design, eventually getting a job with design and consulting firm IDEO.

It was around that time Tibbets started to get scattered ideas that would become IFTTT, like the thought that everyone is capable of basic programming to improve their lives.

And that "Everyone in the world is actually a whole lot more creative than they give themselves credit for, and we make all kinds of decisions about how we use objects in our environments," he said.

Part of that thought was inspired by the book Thoughtless Acts? by Jane Fulton Suri, which shows pictures of people reacting to their world — think using a glass to draw a circle if you don't have a compass, a cell phone to hold open a book, or a box of tissues to prop open a door. The other thought was Tibbets' past experience with Flash, thinking of how event-driven it was.

So, when everything congealed in his head, this mix of connectedness of objects and triggers and actions, he was at a concert. He came home and immediately bought the domain.

Four years later, IFTTT sits in a multi-story building on Market Street in San Francisco, having grown from one floor to all of them. Walking in feels like walking into a nightclub. It's a narrow hall leading to stairs, the walls painted with black chalkboard paint, messages and doodles from employees and visitors, and it all glows thanks to some creative lighting integrated with an IFTTT recipe.

At the top of the stairs, visitors can sign in using an iPad that runs a DO recipe, which sends a Slack notification they've arrived. At least one potted plant has a Parrot Flower Power sensor. If used with IF, the sensor can notify the plant's owner when it needs more water or light by sending tweets or texts, or by even changing the color of a Philips Hue light.

Growth has been steady. More than a million unique users have a recipe do something for them every day. In August 2014, they received $30 million in Series B funding, and now they employ 30 people.

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Image: Patrick Kawahara

There are many steps ahead for IFTTT. The developer platform is still in private beta, so eventually it'll be open. On a broader level, they want to be something of a connective tissue for the Internet of Things. He sees it as a time when everything is becoming a service, and a platform like IFTTT could be a place for developers to register their service and build on top of it.

"Rather than asking developers to go out and integrate with every light bulb that's connected to the internet, to Tesla, to Nest, to Instacart, can we make that actually programmable," Tibbets said.

IFTTT wants to do for the Internet of Things what the operating system did for the computer. It's a big swing, but Tibbets said they subscribe to the idea of "big and bold."

"Think of it as an invisible app for these experiences that go beyond these containers on your phone. We touch all your services and all your experiences that you might have in a much more connected world," he said.

The challenge becomes how exactly to create something so broad in scope — it's not a matter of building a better messaging app, or photo app, or any app with one specified use. The next user-facing tools and the next versions of recipes will have to be at once more advanced, and simpler, he said.

While IFTTT has sparked a lot of interest with those who have early adopter tendencies, Tibbets wants the audience to be broader to reach even those who don't fancy themselves the computer science set.

"Even the very act of organizing a shelf or putting your socks in a special drawer for easy access in the morning, optimizing your environment to suit your needs — that's programming, and anyone is capable of that," he said.

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Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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