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IFTTT Hits The Mainstream: It's Not Just For Geeks Anymore

The connector for Internet services is making itself available to more users by integrating with third-party apps.

[Photo: Flickr user Paul McCoubrie]

As useful as Internet switchboard service IFTTT can be, explaining how it works can be a challenge.

Here's an attempt: IFTTT connects disparate Internet services together, so if something happens within one service, it can trigger a related action on another. (IFTTT's name is an acronym for If This, Then That.)

Actually, the whole concept is easier to understand through examples, so here's a simple one: If you get tagged in a Facebook photo, IFTTT can automatically save the image to Dropbox, or OneDrive, or Google Drive.

The difficulty in describing IFTTT to non-techies, let alone getting them to use it, may explain why the startup is bringing its best "recipes"—what the company calls their connections between products and apps—directly into third-party apps. That way, you don't need to download the IFTTT app or visit the IFTTT website to start taking advantage of the service.

Again, you'll probably want examples, so here are a few drawn from some of the first apps to incorporate IFTTT:

  • Within the Ring smart doorbell app, you can set up Hue lightbulbs to blink when someone's at the door.
  • The Garageio app will let you close the garage door automatically during a rainstorm.
  • The money-management service Qapital can move funds into savings when you meet your Fitbit step goal.

Today, you can already set up these recipes through the IFTTT app or website. But the idea is that people shouldn't have to take those extra steps on their own. (Stack Lighting, Foobot air monitor and others are also trying out the integration.)

"[App makers] can begin to tell these stories in a much more straightforward way, without having to explain how IFTTT works, what 'if this, then that' is, and really what recipes are in general," IFTTT CEO Linden Tibbets says.

App makers will decide which recipes to include, and where users should go to set up the IFTTT connections. In the case of Ring, for instance, the smart doorbell app already has an integrations menu, so users will be able to add popular IFTTT recipes there. Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff expects to offer about five common IFTTT recipes to start, before deciding whether or how to offer more.

"I think it'll expose IFTTT to a broader part of our customer base. Once that happens, we'll see what that means in terms of our customers, and how they interact with it, what they do," Siminoff says.

"Trusted Third Party"

For IFTTT, getting to this point required changes to both its technology and its business. In IFTTT's early days, the startup created "shims)" that could grab outgoing information from one web service and reroute it to another. Effectively, IFTTT was creating connections between services on its own, without the direct involvement of other companies.

A couple years ago, IFTTT opened up a developer platform so companies could integrate with the service directly. That platform is what app makers will use to offer IFTTT recipes to customers.

As such, IFTTT now sees itself less as a destination for users, and more as "trusted third party" for both users and developers, akin to how PayPal works with online retail, Tibbets says. He wants users to recognize the IFTTT brand even if they're not focused on it.

"We certainly will be, I think, taking a step back in some ways." Tibbets says. "It's really about our partners. It's about the stories they want to tell. It's about powering their experience. But when it comes down to actually granting access and turning something new on, we want users to understand that IFTTT is helping make that happen in tandem with our partners."

Tibbets acknowledges that communicating the IFTTT brand in an unobtrusive way will be one of the company's big challenges as it ties directly into other apps. New users still have to create and set up IFTTT accounts when they add recipes, for instance, so there may be room to streamline.

"This is just really the first step in that direction," Tibbets says.

Birth Of A Business Model

In exchange for being the trusted connector between apps, IFTTT is also now looking to turn a profit. Although Tibbets won't talk specifics yet, IFTTT intends to charge companies for including recipes in their apps.

The business model may not go over well with some developers—after all, at one point IFTTT didn't involve any work from them at all, let alone payment—but services like Ring see the expenditure as worthwhile. Without IFTTT, creating the same ties to other services and products would be expensive, tiresome work.

"They basically save us a million dollars a year in engineering that we'd have to do in order to maintain this type of flexibility of products for our customers," Siminoff says.

As Tibbets points out, it's still early days for this whole initiative. The developer program is still private, and only a handful of apps are getting IFTTT capabilities today. The plan is to open up the platform in around six months, during which time IFTTT hopes to improve developer tools, speed up the review process for new integrations, and iron out the business model.

In the meantime, IFTTT's geekier fans shouldn't worry that the standalone app and website are in jeopardy. Tibbets told me a couple years ago IFTTT's early adopters were vital for figuring out new ways to connect disparate apps and services. To that end, the company is now working on even easier ways (which will be unveiled soon) to explore the website and add new recipes.

"Our standalone presence isn't going away," Tibbets says. "In fact, it's mission critical."

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