I think at one point or another we’ve all had dreams of being a wizard or witch. The thought of being able to accomplish tasks without physically having to do anything is quite appealing to the majority of people. I don’t know too many people that would rather wash the dishes by hand rather than shortening the task and letting the dishwasher do the dirty work. It’s that inner desire that creates customers for washing machine, remote control, and similar companies.
But when it comes to automation at the computer or similar digital systems, the options are a little more scarce. However, scarcity does not equate to less powerful. As smart devices take an ever increasing hold in society, small companies are seeing functionality and an exploding market in the barely explored land of automation.
I’ve talked about automation before. It’s something that fascinates me and makes me giddy everytime I figure out another way to make things just a little bit easier around my computer. It’s a little more complicated when it comes to internet services. What if I wanted to receive a text message every time it was going to rain? Sure, it’s not too hard to open up a weather app, but what if that information was waiting for you as soon as you woke up? That extra minute could be an extra minute spent on something else in your busy morning.
IF This Then That
I said “[automation] is a little more complicated” when I should have said “[automation] was a little more complicated”, because at the end of 2010 a service called If This Then That (affectionately called IFTTT) was launched. Since then, automation has only gotten easier. IFTTT glues your automation tasks together using the most fundamental building blocks of logic: “if” statements.
IFTTT is based on “recipes”. These represent the full “If This Then That” statement. Starting at this point is instrumental in cooking up something delicious. You don’t make a masterpiece cake without a plan. So what do you want to automate? What would make your life just a little easier? Describe it.
I’ll use the simple example described earlier about the text for weather. It’s end result (or recipe description) is “this recipe sends me a text every morning at 6:00AM describing today’s forecast.” Pretty simple, right?
Now, each recipe is made of 4 essential things: Channels, Triggers, Actions, and Ingredients.
Channels are how your recipe is “glued” together, so to speak. You could think of them as the flour in your cake recipe. The flavors, eggs, and butter are important, but without all that flour doing the heavy lifting, you wouldn’t have a cake, you’d have a goopy….something.
In our little weather recipe, the two channels we need are the SMS (text message) channel and the Weather Channel. Now, for this example we don’t need to log in (or activate) the channels because they’re pretty basic services that don’t require any personal information for them to work. For other channels such as Facebook you’d have to “activate the channel” by logging into your Facebook and giving IFTTT permission to access your account.
Without these channels you could wish all you wanted for a morning weather message, but it isn’t likely to happen. These channels are incredibly powerful and provide all sorts of functionality. With so many of them (85 to be precise) you’re sure to find something you can use.
The next ingredient is called a Trigger. This is where we start disecting the statement “If This Then That” into smaller pieces. Triggers define “If This”, meaning that I only want something to happen when this event happens. I don’t want to receive the weather forecast every 15 min because that’d be ineffecient. I only want it at 6AM.
So I set my trigger to be “Time of Day” on the Weather channel. This makes sure that my action takes place only when I want it to.
This defines the “Then That” of our recipe. Actions are the output, the “what happens” due to the trigger being activated.
We define this by selecting the channel that includes the appropriate action we want it to take. These can really be as silly or as serious as you want. One of the great things about IFTTT is that it can really glue just about anything together. You might not think that the weather and the Facebook have anything in common, but if you wanted to, you could have IFTTT post a smiley-face on Facebook. Is there any practical use for that? Not really, but you could do it.
In our case we’ll select the SMS channel and enter the information we want the message to include. IFTTT pre-defines variables (called ingredients) for you to insert.
Ingredients describe these pre-defined variables that are ready for you to use. This is where your creative cooking comes in and you get to decide exactly how your cake will taste.
For my weather message, I like to see the high and low temperatures and the chance of precipitation, so I only include those. You might to see more so you could define that message how you want.
Why Is It A Big Deal?
The way I see it, IFTTT is the first really consumer friendly automation system that has been able to not only automate things in the digital world, but in the physical world as well. Home automation is a new area of exploration, but it is taking hold. IFTTT can give you even more control over those smart devices (such as Philips Hue Lightbulbs, Wemo switches, etc.).
IFTTT’s power and stickiness is explained in it’s simplicity. Anyone can set this up for themselves with little to no help needed. You can even browse and activate recipes that other people have already set up. There’s no coding skills required and the payoffs for your productivity are huge. IFTTT really fills in the gap between the internet services you use and your personal computer, giving you unity in all of your information, gives you time to focus on more meaningful tasks, and keeps your digital life organized with litte effort on your part. You may not actually be a wizard, but you’d be pretty close when using IFTTT.