What The Internet Of Things Has Is A Failure To Communicate

This post also appears on Wearable.ai, which interviews the innovators in wearable computing, IoT and AR. For inquiries, please email publisher Mark Brooks.

The market is flooded with the latest apps, the newest wearables, and spectacular innovations in the Internet of Things. There is no end in sight for this explosion of technology designed to make our lives easier, healthier, and more fulfilled.

The biggest problem, however, is that there are so many particular instances of innovation, differing by platform, operating system, or API design, that it is all but impossible to use them together in a seamless way.

We reached out to Linden Tibbets, CEO and cofounder of IFTTT, to find out how the automation service hopes to bridge the gap between all these new connected devices. IFTTT (which stands for “if this, then that” and rhymes with “gift”) allows users of connected devices and digital services to easily integrate them across platforms—for example, sharing your Jawbone Up’s sleep record with your Twitter followers, or saving YouTube videos to your Pocket app to watch later. Each of these combinations is called a “recipe”—a set of instructions others can pick up if they want to make the same connection between app or device.

In this interview, he explains his motivation for creating IFTTT, how the platform is altering the way we view the world of IoT, and how IFTTT hopes to ease us into the future.

Mark Brooks: How did IFTTT come about?

Linden Tibbets: My background is both in computer science and design. I was working as an interaction designer and was really struck by the amount of what I call “creative control” people exercise in their physical world every day. We are constantly modifying objects in our environment, using them in small ways outside the range by which the original designers of those objects intended.

For example, putting a pencil behind your ear, putting your jacket on the back of your chair, or using your hip to open the door instead of your hand. We do this stuff thousands of times per day and totally take it for granted. Really, what we are doing is effectively programming our environment, making it better suited to meet our needs. 

In that same level of creative control, this ability to adapt your environment to you needs, was really missing as things went digital and crossed over into the realm of Facebook and Salesforce and connected light bulbs.

That was the sort of insight that drove everything we’ve done since then. How do we make this digital world just as malleable and fluid to allow individuals and developers to be extremely creative with how objects and digital services work together in the digital world?

MB: How many users do you have currently?

LT: We don’t share current numbers, but to give you a sense of scale, folks on IFTTT have created over 31 million recipes to date. We run about 35 million recipes per day, so think of that as combinations of saving files to Dropbox, turning off your lights at night, letting you know when it’s going to rain tomorrow, etc.

We have over a million unique individuals that have a recipe do something for them each day. So, we’ve hit a pretty large scale considering how many connected devices and services are out there today.

MB: Who is your typical user?

LT: Right now, it’s typically someone who’s looking to get something more out of the services they currently have. Folks that have some deep experience with one or two or three individual services, these could be services like Gmail or Google Calendar, Facebook, or perhaps someone who is big into sports and ESPN, or wearables, like someone who has been wearing their Fitbit everyday for a year, or someone who just got a new Nest thermostat and has some really neat ideas about what they want to do above and beyond what you can do with just that individual item or service.

So, typically they are folks that have deep expertise within each one of those service areas, and you’d actually be surprised, that is just about everybody. Anyone who is using the internet today has a set of things that they understand at a really nuanced level and is capable of taking that further.

MB: Are there any particularly large communities that you would consider “power users”?

LT: We’ve seen that those that are early adopters in the connected home really love IFTTT. The people that are going out there buying $200–$300 items and connecting them to the internet, even though that is still quite a struggle to get something connected and keep it connected to the internet. These are the people who are using IFTTT to get a tremendous amount of value out of objects that without IFTTT really just talks to its app and does its thing, but with IFTTT, can connect to a much broader set of services and other devices.

The Maker community is incredibly passionate about IFTTT, we have seen it used for a lot of very interesting Maker projects. Other large communities around IFTTT include people doing marketing and managing social media.

IFTTT’s Next Lift

MB: Your company has exploded from a few dozen, to almost 250 channels. These include not only social media  and news feeds as in the beginning, but now you’ve integrated home connected devices, productivity services and wearables, as well as many others including iPhone apps and your new Android channels. Are there any up-and-coming integrations we can expect in the near future?

LT: Of course, the home is incredibly popular and we’re going to see a ton of connected home channels. We now have over 70 connected-home channels, but we are going to see that number explode past 100 after the holiday season, as people gear up to try to get their device under the Christmas tree.

The home is just a small piece of the general excitement around the Internet of Things, there are so many things connecting to the internet that we will see over the course of the next year, and I think one of those big categories will be the automobile. There will be all kinds of devices around the car, like garage-door openers, different car accessories, and with car manufacturers themselves getting online and getting connected they will be looking to see what else their audience or other developers can do with this new connected endpoint.

Alongside that, we are incredibly excited about other enterprise [software-as-a-service]  type tools, we are starting to look at a lot of tools that other developers are using to compliment the set of consumer IoT, wearable, and other services that IFTTT has today.

MB: What’s the most remarkable recipe for a wearable or other device you’ve encountered?

LT: We’ve seen some really neat recipes for wearables, specifically around some of the fitness trackers, people using IFTTT as a way to unlock some other real world reward. For example, [if] you hit your step goal, then it unlocks a cookie jar or a certain cabinet in your house.

We’ve seen that people really love to control their lights, to change the color of their lights as sort of a social party trick, but there’s no end to the different things that people want to connect to lights—for example, using the ESPN Sports integration we have to change the lights to match their sports team’s colors for the game.

One of our fellow engineers here named Jim Heising actually built an internal private channel that controls eight TV monitors in the office, and we can post all kinds of interesting things on them. Those TV’s have really turned into a shared community message board, and that has been really really fun.

That is getting into the idea of what developers can do with our platform once they really have access to it.

MB: Who do you view as your biggest competitors, and what advantages do your services have over the rest?

LT: I don’t think there is another major technology company out there that doesn’t yet have some sort of IoT platform, or is at least starting to talk about their IoT platform. We view each one of them not as competitive, but complimentary.

On the surface, a lot of people may say IFTTT is just another IoT platform, but we think about the world very differently. We’re not just about devices, you can elicit a lot of those connections that we have that have nothing to do with IoT, we are about services.

To take that even further, we’re about enabling seamless experiences for consumers. I think a big problem for developers today is their ability to develop for multiple platforms at the same time. What we are aiming to do it not be an IoT platform, but to be a seamless computing platform and enable developers to build those seamless computing experiences of the future.

Photo by Kevin Krejci

For more, including new opportunities IFTTT has in store for developers, check out part 2 on ReadWrite next week.

For interviews with the innovators in wearable computing, IoT, and augmented reality, subscribe to the Wearable.ai newsletter.

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