IFTTT IT Works, Don’t Mess With It (Update)
A couple years ago, we wrote about IFTTT (If This Then That), a glue service that connects smart home devices and web services. In a nutshell, IFTTT gives services and devices a way to talk to one another, and then allows you to write simple scenarios (or “applets”) using a “trigger” from one service and an “action” from another. For example, changing the light color (action) when your weather station detects rain (trigger.)
We’ve been using IFTTT on a near-daily basis since 2014 – and over the course of these past few years, the IFTTT experience has changed quite a bit. So we thought it was time for an update of our own (and maybe a small rant).
Big changes to the business model
It’s been our longtime hope that IFTTT would bring more features to its users through a paid subscription plan. Yes, we would happily shell out $10 a month to be able to set up synchronized alerts (for example making lights turn red AND calling my phone if the greenhouse is overheating — currently the only way to accomplish this is to set up multiple instances of the same trigger).
Back in 2014, that seemed like a sure thing. IFTTT’s founder, Linden Tibbets, even came right out and said that they were looking towards charging consumers for a premium service in the coming months. He also mentioned opportunities “on the channel side” — which turned out to be the direction IFTTT took.
Alas, we never did get the premium subscription we hoped to see. Instead, in February 2016 IFTTT launched a $199/month subscription plan for its service partners. IFTTT also allows applets to run directly from those partner apps now, so users can access a curated selection of applets without ever downloading the IFTTT app.
And our hope for synchronized actions? IFTTT can do that now, but only partners have that ability, not consumers. So now BMW has its own applet that makes Garageio open the garage door, turns up the Nest thermostat, and turns on the Philips Hue lights when the car pulls in the driveway – but there’s no way for the user to use different hardware or customize the applet. For consumers wanting to do more with IFTTT, there is another option – the “Maker” channel, released in June 2015. This channel lets users create applets using any device or service that can make or receive a web request. For example, I was able to get IFTTT pulling the data from my Dexcom continuous glucose monitor, and then I set up various alerts for low and high glucose thresholds – calling my phone, turning on lights, putting a notification on the Comcast X1 box, etc.
However, the Maker channel still doesn’t allow multiple actions per applet; I had to create separate applets for every trigger/alert combination – which, in addition to being a pain, makes for a long list of applets that need to be updated if you decide to make changes.
So how’s that partner subscription working out?
In the early days, services were added to IFTTT for free, often with no development work on their part – IFTTT just connected to apps and devices with open APIs.
Now that IFTTT is asking services to pay for its platform, some have been vocal about their support for the new IFTTT while others were cut off for refusing to shell out the cash. The founder of social bookmarking service Pinboard even wrote a blog post about why he chose not to sign on, citing “squirrely terms of service” and that IFTTT “wanted him to do their job for them, for free.” Of course, in that same blog post he also compared IFTTT to a sewer pipe, so read into that what you will.
Interestingly enough, there are several key partners that are NOT paying to be part of IFTTT’s platform (Philips Hue for example) – and IFTTT is keeping mum on how many of its approximately 360 partners actually subscribe. (Our napkin-math says that even if ALL of them signed on, they’d be making about $621K/year. We’re not financial geniuses, but that nonetheless seems a bit low for an ongoing concern.)
When asked in an interview with Fast Company whether Philips was willing to pay for the platform, George Yanni (Head of Connected Technology) was noncommittal at best. He mentioned that he “wasn’t sure how the process would go,” and that Philips has enjoyed a “long, very successful partnership with IFTTT, where we’ve both gotten a lot of value and publicity out of it, so we’ll just have to discuss with them to see how best we do that going forward.” Sounds to us like IFTTT might have a problem getting its most popular services to pony up.
While it remains to be seen whether IFTTT’s new business model is actually paying off, we can say with some certainty that the user experience is going downhill. Which brings us to a quick summary of the gripes we have with IFTTT:
1. Too many name changes to keep track
Since 2012, IFTTT has renamed itself more than a gangster on the lam. Over the past 5 years, we’ve seen the terminology evolve from “tasks and add-ins” to “recipes and ingredients” to “applets and services.”
There was also an awkward, short-lived phase in 2015 where IFTTT changed its name to “IF” and released a trio of companion apps – “DO Button” “DO Camera” and “DO Note.” The idea behind these apps was a button widget that you could set to do something in another app – for example, to automatically send a text to let your spouse know you’re leaving the office, or to make your phone ring in the event you need to excuse yourself from an awkward conversation. IFTTT soon reversed course again (perhaps realizing that maybe people didn’t want to download 4 separate apps -!) and re-rolled the DO functionality into the main app (which is back to being called IFTTT now.)
2. The process isn’t as easy as it used to be
When setting up triggers and actions, IFTTT used to have shortcuts to your favorite services, which made it easy to create new recipes – oops! — applets. That top spot has since been replaced with “popular” services, followed by a long list of all available services.
This is almost certainly designed to encourage more discovery, but that backfires when the list is so cluttered that it’s easier to use the search box than scroll to what you need.
A few of the many services you’ll scroll through to find what you actually need
3. Midnight rides and other glitches
It seems like IFTTT is generally less reliable since migrating to its new platform, possibly because it’s a challenge for service partners to keep up with changes to the API. There was one week in January where many of the applets we set up stopped responding to triggers altogether. Likewise, the Automatic car adapter initially worked quite well with IFTTT (we like to use it for logging business miles, or to be notified that the car just left the grocery store, so it’s too late to add anything to the list.)
Currently, IFTTT and Automatic are hit or miss – sometimes alerts happen promptly, and sometimes they get stuck and come sailing over the transom several hours later. (This is much like Leslie’s now-rogue doorbell-cam, which now rings more than a half hour AFTER being triggered.) Waking up at 2 a.m. to a notification that my car is halfway across town is an eye-roller, yet I’m always compelled to go make sure it’s still in the driveway.
4. We still can’t help but use it
Despite being irritated at the direction IFTTT is going, I still use it every day. In fact, it saved me a lot of pain just this morning, when I awoke at 3:30 a.m. to a phone call from a robotic voice somewhere in the Silicon Valley, warning me that my seedlings were about to freeze. Unbeknownst to me, the circuit powering the greenhouse heater tripped, and the temperature inside the greenhouse was steadily dropping while I slept. If not for the alerts I set up, I surely would have woken to a greenhouse full of frozen tomatoes and peppers. It saved our seedlings last year too. So despite the frustrations, we’ll keep living with IFTTT (at least until something better comes along).
Connected Home for the Holidays
With Christmas right around the corner, you may be looking for a few last-minute things to put under the tree. There are connected gadgets everywhere you look this year; here are a few of our favorites in the smart home and OTT categories:
For sound sleepers: Philips Hue (starter kit includes hub and three LED bulbs for $189)
When we first saw the Philips Hue bulbs at CES a few years back, the novelty factor of these color-changing connected LED bulbs was unmistakable – but they weren’t something we zeroed in on as particularly useful. Boy, were we wrong.
For the stubbornly sound sleepers in your life, Hue bulbs can be a game-changer. I use them with the Sleep Cycle alarm for iPhone ($0.99) and now I wake up to soothing music and the rising sun on my nightstand. It’s so much better than a shrieking alarm clock in a dark room, particularly for those of us that tend to slap the snooze bar and keep on dreaming about the beeping explosive device we just disarmed while the rest of the family wakes up angry. You can also set the bulbs to light up on a schedule, if you prefer your own alarm clock.
The Hue bulbs work with dozens of other applications – and the API (Application Programming Interface) and SDK (Software Development Kit) are open so your favorite tinkerers have the freedom to develop their own apps for the bulbs. There are also frameworks like IFTTT that work with Hue bulbs, turning them into subtle notification devices that tell you when you get an important email, or when your loved ones touch down at the airport. You can also set up geofencing with your mobile device to turn on your lights when you get close to the house.
I could go on all day about the different ways you can use these bulbs, but suffice it to say I picked up my own set shortly after testing them in the lab.
The hue system consists of a hub (which uses a hard-wired Ethernet connection) and 3 LED bulbs, which connect to the hub using ZigBee radios (one hub can support up to 50 bulbs; each additional bulb will cost you $60).
For anyone with WiFi: Belkin WeMo Smart Outlet ($39)
This single connected outlet is a great way to connect dumb objects to the Internet. Just plug it in and set it up on the home WiFi network, then you can use the WeMo app to turn the outlet off and on from anywhere in the world, or set it to operate on a schedule. Perfect for turning off power-hogging devices overnight, remotely controlling Christmas lights and space heaters, and shutting off the iron you forgot to unplug before you left for the office. Like the Philips Hue bulbs, WeMo devices work with IFTTT to connect to other apps and devices – so when you leave the iron on, you can have it send you a text to alert you.
For the person who loses everything: Tile ($25-$180)
These little Bluetooth-powered trackers attach to your stuff and work with a mobile app to help you find the stuff you lose. Stick or keychain Tiles on your bag, your keys, or, in Leslie’s case, her irreplaceable, Lake Erie-sourced “Smiling Rock,” and use your phone to locate them when they go missing.
Leslie’s “Smiling Rock,” with a Tile affixed using the optional adhesive patch.
There are a few notable limitations. Chief among them: Tile’s search-and-find capabilities are powered by Bluetooth, meaning, not GPS. So you won’t be in the luxurious position of harrumping to the luggage claim agent, “I said Oakland, not Auckland!” — because it can only find your stuff if it’s within the Bluetooth range of the app. Rats!) But if you’re trying to zero in on which pile of counter clutter swalled your keys, or where the dog delivered the remote, it’s aces. The Tile app will show you when you’re getting close, and the Tile itself will play a little tune and vibrate until you find whatever it’s affixed to.
The Tile app supports up to 8 Tiles, and you can buy each tile for $25 – but you’ll get a discount for buying packs of 4, 8, or 12 (packs of 12 come out to the best deal at $15 apiece).
For your favorite Prime subscribers: Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40)
We got a great deal on this streaming dongle back in October, when Amazon let Prime customers order it for $19. But at $39, it’s still a solid device with a slick interface that is a lot more responsive than the Roku Streaming Stick ($49).
Fire TV — also available as a $79 set-top box, with a voice-controlled remote — will be a welcome addition to any household with Amazon Prime (it also has apps for Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and Showtime plus some free content). The dongle is super easy to set up, and if you order it through your Amazon account it’ll show up at your door already signed in to your account (order it as a gift or pick it up at a retail store if you’re purchasing it for someone else, unless you want them streaming movies from your Prime account). My parents, the original cord-nevers, ordered one and they love it – in fact, Dad even says he prefers it to the Roku I got them a few years back.