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Why this company wants to 'connect the dots' between software and hardware

If This Then That is making a long-term bet on the smart items industry and it wants to be at the centre of it, but progress will be gradual.

IFTTT CEO Linden Tibbits speaking at GigaOM Structure Connect.
IFTTT CEO Linden Tibbits speaking at GigaOM Structure Connect.
Image: Kevin Krejci/Flickr

DESPITE PROMISING SO much, the smart items world we were promised has yet to materialise.

While certain items from the likes of Nest and Climote are already on the market, the move has been slow. But even when traditional items like our alarm clock or our coffee machine are connected up, they’re still going to be operating on their own, similar to how apps work now.

That’s something If This then That (IFTTT) hopes to deal with after doing the same for apps. Essentially a virtual switchboard that allows you to connect two apps together (called recipes) and create new actions, it has gradually built up its service with the goal of making isolated apps and services more useful.

It’s built up a steady collection of apps and services now totalling to 140 services or channels as it calls. While it’s been mostly focused on connecting apps like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter (for example, you can use it to tweet an Instagram photo anytime you post one on the app), about a third of these channels are hardware based.

While it has created 16 million recipes, which run 18 million times a day, it’s built up a sizeable audience with the more tech-savvy users out there, with the aim to make it more mainstream according to its CEO Linden Tibbets.

“If you can imagine what IFTTT really represents right now, it’s a connection between two things in a third place, and that’s advanced,” says Tibbets. “You really have to go out of your way if you want to do that [complete a new action].”

Making it more accessible to a general audience involves two things, the first is allowing people to integrate with developers, embedding IFTTT into their own apps and allowing users to create recipes directly within the app. The other involves automatically suggesting recipes based on what apps you use.

Tibbets is careful that users have a choice in this as he says ”you have to give them the value. You can’t ask for a bunch of access and information and not immediately provide value right off the bat and that the choice to say ‘actually, I don’t want to participate in this’ is there.”

Yet the most interesting part of its expansion involves moving into connected hardware. Currently, about a third of the services IFTTT allows you to connect are hardware based, signalling that this move has already begun, but there is still a long way to go.

IFTTT Part of the appeal of IFTTT is combining different services to create new, more useful actions. Source: IFTTT

‘Three phases’

Tibbets breaks down the move from software to smart items into three main phases. The first is essentially getting what’s already out there online, taking the basic items we use and connecting them to the internet (although he says that accomplishing that alone is “hard enough” as it is)

This phase is very much about, each one of those has an app, each one of them have a web service, each one of those have permissions and access model, very different from the others, and I think that’s well and good. Just getting things connected and getting them to work on their own in their own silos is going to be hard enough. We’re still not really great at that yet.

The second phase is taking these connected devices and developing an ecosystem around the main devices out there. The obvious one is the smartphone, and other devices like Nest, which he believes will be successful in its own way, but to make sense of these devices, they will need an access point.

The third phase – and the area that IFTTT will come into play – is what Tibbets describes as “connecting the dots” between all of these services. This is very much a long-term goal, four or five years away at least, but IFTTT wants to be there when this shift occurs.

When a standard is created, it will allow people to decide what they want to give devices access to and how they communicate with each other. That’s what IFTTT is waiting for and when it arrives, it wants to be at the centre of it.

[It's about] starting to help people say ‘this is how the permission system should work and here’s a way where everyone can participate in that’ and here’s a way that not only do consumers have this standardised view of how these connections are made, but we can also start to allow developers to build on top of a platform… It’s almost like an OS. Your toaster, your car, all those things together in the one place and then you can build apps on top of that… it’s those apps on top that are going to bring out a lot of the value as that’s what developers are really good at.

For now, the company is planning to introduce a premium version of IFTTT for power users, giving them access to new types of recipes as well as managing multiple accounts under the one name

The other plan is to open up the platform to developers so anyone can build and launch their own channels. As more companies get on board and design their own links, Tibbets believes this will motivate them to get the word out and encourage more people to use IFTTT.

“We’re starting to see the same thing with IFTTT, so I think that’s where we’ll hopefully see a lot of growth in the future as we get companies on board, get them incentivise and get them excited about launching their channel,” said Tibbets.

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Quinton O'Reilly

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