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What is IFTTT and how can I use it to hack my life?

Yo, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Digg, Foursquare, RSS feeds, Evernote, Fitbit, Gmail, smartphones, smart home kit – how many connected products and services do you have?

If you’re like us, it’s not a question of what you do online, but how to make it all work together. Most social and messaging services let you share photos, links and status updates with each other, but what if you want to do smarter things?

If This Then That – usually shortened to IFTTT (and pronounced “eye-eff-triple-tee”) – is one way to do smarter stuff.

If only everything were this easy
If only everything were this easy

It’s an idea of refreshing simplicity: you choose a trigger event, let’s say the time of day, and associate it with an action like an alarm going off on your phone or a notification popping up.

It could be as simple as automatically turning your phone’s WiFi on and off when you’re going in and out of the office, or getting an alert when it’s going to rain tomorrow.

If you’ve got smart home kit like security cameras, motion detectors, a Nest heating controller or Philips Hue connected lights, it can do much more if it knows where you are and what time of day it is. 

You could wait for the software’s developers to add new features, or you could hope they open it up to a system which does lets you choose which bits of tech connect to each other, how and why. In fact, we think it’s so important that when we review new smart home kit, it’s marked down for lacking an IFTTT channel.

There are IFTTT channels for more than 100 devices and services
There are IFTTT channels for more than 100 devices and services

IFTTT channels: who’s there?

IFTTT is built around channels, usually for a particular service like BuzzFeed or ESPN, but for Android and iOS there are separate channels for things like Location and Notifications.

There are 116 channels as this article goes up (July 9, 2014) from photography community 500px to YouTube. 

You can loosely divide them into online services or apps like bitly, hardware like Android or Google Glass, and functions like Date & Time or Weather.

Anyone with a product or service can enquire about creating an IFTTT channel, and it’s clear that some are works in progress which only a few of the triggers and actions 

You activate channels as you need to, although a few are activated by default when you join: the Date & Time, Email, Email Daily Digest, IFTTT, Web Feed, Weather and SMS channels make sense, but also Boxoh package tracking, Craigslist, and Stocks tracker.

So far we’ve added a suite of Android channels, plus Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Fitbit, Google Calendar, Parrot Flower Power, Philips Hue and Twitter.

IFTTT recipes are built up with Triggers, Actions and Ingredients
IFTTT recipes are built up with Triggers, Actions and Ingredients

Cooking with IFTTT Recipes

Your IFTTT channels are combined with Recipes, made up of Triggers, Actions and Ingredients.

As far as big, friendly interfaces go, IFTTT is one of the best: every recipe starts with the line “ifthisthenthat”, and walks you through the seven steps with a ‘back’ button if you need to change something.

How does this work? Let’s take a look at a recipe for helping us look after Alan, the office plant, who’s connected to us via a Parrot Flower Power.

The Flower Power monitors the soil moisture, fertilisery-ness, light levels and temperature around Alan, and knowing what sort of plant he is, it knows what’s best for him. It communicates with Parrot’s servers in the background via my phone’s Bluetooth.

Our recipe is triggered if soil moisture is dangerously low, with just one ingredient: the plant’s name.

The action is a free SMS to my phone, and the ingredients are soil status, the plant’s name, and an instruction to give it some water. 

Other channels allow very specific ingredients – you can trigger actions based on Gmail search terms so they go off when an email arrives with a specific subject or from a specified person.

If this sounds complicated, don’t worry. There are hundreds of recipes created by other users which you can share and modify. It’s easy to get started and once you’re comfortable, you can start to experiment. Here’s our Flower Power water warning recipe.

There are even collections of recipes for the Internet of Things, gardening, and music lovers.

IFTTT: what can you do?

The only limits to IFTTT are the channels and the actions and ingredients that their owners have opened up.

Sometimes they’re surprising, although we’re sure there are good reasons for them.

For example: Twitter lets you access the full name and profile of a new follower so you can post a message about them on your feed – you’ll see one if you follow @RecombuDigital – but it doesn’t let you access their Twitter handle to send them a direct thankyou message. 

We guess this is to prevent people setting up IFTTT spambots, but it’s still a shame.

Other channels look like they’re taking a gradual approach to adding triggers and actions: the WinK Spotter is a sensor that reports motion, sound, light, temperature, and humidity, but so far you can only use the temperature as a trigger.

If you want to take advantage of recipes using your phone’s location and other sensors, you’ll need to install the free IFTTT app for iOS or Android.

A couple of our shared IFTTT recipes
A couple of our shared IFTTT recipes

IFTTT: our favourite recipes

We’ve got an IFTTT account for Recombu Digital as well as personal accounts: here are a few of of our recipes, with links for you to try them.

  • Tweet when you get a new follower: a little thankyou tweet that goes out every time someone follows Recombu Digital (try it with @recombudigital).
  • Tweet our new videos: sends out a Tweet with the YouTube link every time Recombu uploads a new live video.
  • Fitness reminder: a gentle nag by SMS if I haven’t hit my daily target of 30 active minutes.
  • Hue lights geolocation: Turns on my Philips Hue lights when I get home, and off when I leave – far more reliable than Hue’s own geolocation function.
  • Hue sunset lighting: Automatically turns on my Philips Hue lights at a set brightness when the sun goes down – handy for coming home to a warmly lit house in winter.


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