SHARING AMERICA'S TECH NEWS FROM THE VALLEY TO THE ALLEY
by Klint Finley (courtesy wired)
When Kevin Andersson rolls out of bed each morning, his bedroom lights automatically turn on. So do the lights in the hall, and throughout the house. Then, when he walks across the room and steps on the scale, the coffeemaker in the kitchen turns on to brew the day’s first cup of joe.
You see, there’s a motion sensor in Andersson’s room, and it’s connected to his household lighting system by way of an internet service called IFTTT, short for “If This, Then That.” The same service connects his scale to his coffeemaker, and he arranged all of this without writing a line of code. He simply bought a few pieces of hardware, hooked them up, and tinkered with the web service to ensure all the pieces could talk to each other.
Andersson, who lives in Odense, Denmark, not far from Copenhagen, makes his living as a programmer, but in automating his home, he didn’t need his programming skills. “I’m a coder,” he says. “But with IFTTT, I don’t have to code anything.”
The dream of an automated home full of connected appliances — aka The Internet of Things — isn’t the vaporware it once was. Several consumer devices already connect to the web, and hardware hackers have been building tools like web-connected beer fermentation systems and thermometers that track your Thanksgiving turkey.
Yes, this can require more than a little computer know-how. But IFTTT is changing that by letting you integrate various web services and devices without writing code. “We always had the idea that IFTTT could be the world’s simplest programming language,” says company CEO Linden Tibbets. “But we don’t call it that because people would have a reaction to the word ‘programming.’”
To use IFTTT, simply select the services you’d like to link and indicate what you’d like them to do. You can even select from “recipes” built for specific tasks. For the most part, these are tasks that happen solely on the internet. For example, you can use the service to automatically upload a photo to Dropbox when you post it to Facebook, or send a tweet when you post to your blog. But the services also ties into many physical devices, including the Jawbone UP fitness tracker, the Phillips Hue home lighting control system, and Belkin’s WeMo devices, which can detect motion in a room and toggle electrical flow from an outlet.
Using these devices, you can now automatically adjust your lighting based on the weather outside or switch off an appliance via text message. Andersson’s home lighting system and coffeemaker tie into the Phillips Hue and the Belkin WeMo.
Tibbets — once a designer at the well-known design house IDEO — founded IFTTT with his brother Alexander. The way he tells it, the project began by thinking about how people interact not with internet services, but with physical objects like, say, doorknobs.
“We are able to assess what an object is good for based on its physical appearance, and we often use things in ways that the designer didn’t intend,” he says. For example, you know you can wear a backpack because you can see the straps, and you know that you can use a cellphone as a paperweight, even though that’s not its intended purpose, because you know it’s heavier than paper. The aim was to take this notion into the digital world.
Perhaps more importantly, IFTTT is giving power to people who don’t know the first thing about coding.
Web applications don’t have physical properties, so it can be hard to know what you can use them for. But by making it clear what different apps can do and how they can be stitched together, IFTTT makes it possible to use web applications in ways the original developers didn’t intend.
IFTTT — and alternatives like the open source alternative Hugin or the business-oriented service Zapier — have become a standard part of the Quantified Self toolkit, letting users automate and analyze their lives. This sort of thing is creeping into businesses, too. For example, the Portland, Oregon based mobile design and development firm Citizen has been building a system to analyze the effects of everything from lighting to exercise on employee productivity.
Perhaps more importantly, IFTTT is giving power to people who don’t know the first thing about coding. In a way, it offers a new breed of programming, one far more people can grasp. “IFTTT simplifies the process of programming by abstracting away most of the language itself,” says Zach Sims, CEO of the online programming tutorial company Codecademy. “In that sense, it’s a terrific gateway to programming.”
There’s been a great push in recent years to train more people to program. From a children’s book that teaches kids basic programming concepts to simple visual programming languages for kids to browser-based coding tutorials like Codecademy, the code literacy movement aims to turn us all into programmers. IFTTT shows us there may be simpler ways to get started.
“Introducing people to programming concepts through IFTTT will, hopefully, show them the power of programming and get them excited to learn to truly program using something like Codecademy,” Sims says. “From there, the sky’s the limit.”
IFTTT can also be used by experienced programers to more quickly and easily accomplish tasks without coding. Andersson is a prime example, and Sims and others at Codecademy have long used IFTTT’s integration with the Belkin WeMo to control its office lighting system. “That’s quite cool and something that would take far longer to set up hand-coding something,” he says.
At the moment, IFTTT only works with pre-selected services. But the company is expanding its operation through a new developer program, and in the future, Tibbets says, the company will have an open platform so that developers can make their products and services available through IFTTT on their own. “We are literally talking about connecting everything to everything.”