The “Internet of Things” isn’t a new term — in fact, it was first coined by Kevin Ashton back in 1999 — but it’s one that is starting to be used much more frequently. It’s an idea whose time has come. More objects now include the ability to connect to other devices using the Internet, and that trend shows no signs of slowing up. The Nest home thermostat, for example, connects to your home Wi-Fi network and can be controlled over the Web. Projects like the Lockitron also use Wi-Fi and enable you to unlock your front door from another continent. We’re even starting to see refrigerators with Internet connectivity.
But as our household objects become more connected, a hodgepodge of smartphone apps and Web-based controls won’t do. We’ll need a customizable, easy-to-use back-end for our “Internet of things” that lets us automate them and connect them to the online services we already use. Thankfully, one such service already exists, and it’s called IFTTT — If This, Then That.
IFTTT started out in 2010 as a way for Web users to create automated tasks based on “triggers” — for example, if you upload a photo to Facebook, you can tell IFTTT to automatically save that photo to your Google Drive. You can also send a text message to the service or place a phone call to set off another trigger. There are currently 59 “channels” available for use in IFTTT, each with its own set of available triggers and actions, and you can create some really nifty automated tasks (called “recipes”) using them.
Two of the channels available in IFTTT are for Belkin’s WeMo Wi-Fi connected power switches and motion sensors; in these, I see the future of what IFTTT could be, which is the back-end for our Internet of things. If you have a heater plugged in to your WeMo switch, you can activate it based on entries in your Google Calendar, or have it come on automatically when the temperature drops below a certain level. Is someone in your apartment? Configure your WeMo motion sensor and IFTTT to send you a text when motion is detected. As we get more connected objects, or more WeMo-like devices that are capable of connecting these objects, we’ll find even more ways to put IFTTT to work.
I know what you’re probably thinking: some of what you just described sounds like home automation, which has been around for a long time. But home automation in that sense is primitive compared to what the Internet of Things has in store, particularly when we start hooking objects up to the grid that we haven’t even considered. Imagine sensors in your cabinet that automatically add cereal to your Evernote grocery list when the box is no longer there, or a package locker that only opens for delivery companies and sends you an email when a package is placed inside. IFTTT is already creating a way for multiple objects and services to interact with each other, and the service is perfectly positioned to take advantage of a world where almost everything is connected in some way.
It’s a world that sounds very much sci-fi, but it’s the world we’re building right now. You can laugh all you want about a refrigerator that can play Angry Birds, but such products are necessary steps toward connecting all of the objects in our lives and figuring out ways to make those connections useful. The next few years are going to be very, very exciting, and I have a feeling that IFTTT will be a company that benefits tremendously.