Living in silos
As software continues to eat the world, we spend an ever-increasing portion of our time online. Worldwide, we pass over 35 billion hours a month in the digital world, with US Internet users spending an average of 32 hours online monthly. As the Web has evolved, more and more of that online time is spent in specialized venues such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Foursquare. While these are fantastic applications, they have a downside, in that they largely exist as parallel, unconnected containers for our personal data. Trapped in their respective silos, our posts, photos, tweets, pins and checkins are largely inaccessible to us from outside. Moreover, creating useful connections between one application and another is far beyond the average user. Sure, most of the most popular web applications now have APIs, but they’re written for the benefit of developers, not people. (Take a look at Instagram’s API documentation, for example.)
Andreessen Horowitz’s latest investment, IFTTT, (for If This Then That) is out to change all that. IFTTT (rhymes with “gift”) is a simple yet powerful way to create connections between any two web applications, triggering an action on one every time any event you specify happens on another. For example, when I post on App.net, my post instantly appears on Twitter too, thanks to IFTTT. Every time I post a photo (or am tagged in one) on Facebook, IFTTT downloads it to my Dropbox without my even having to think about it. Here’s what that recipe looks like:
Looking for a short-notice ski rental property in Tahoe used to mean checking Craigslist several times a day – this week I just had a simple IFTTT recipe call my cellphone the minute the one I wanted showed up. I no longer check for new movies on Netflix – IFTTT does it on my behalf. While I go about my digital life, IFTTT is in the background, quietly watching out for me.
Like all of a16z’s investments, this one starts with a compelling founder. Linden Tibbets, IFTTT’s co-founder and CEO, started working on IFTTT from his San Francisco apartment in 2010, after three years at design firm IDEO. Struck by how instinctively we know how to use physical objects in creative ways, he set out to enable us to be just as creative with the applications we use in the digital world. To quote Linden, “Much like in the physical world when a 12 year old wants a light-saber, cuts the handle off an old broom and shoves a bike grip on the other end, you can take two things in the digital world and combine them in ways the original creators never imagined.”
“Digital duct tape”
What resulted is IFTTT— described by a recent interviewer as “an idea so alarmingly simple and amazingly powerful… it makes you wonder why nobody thought of it before.” True to Linden’s design roots, IFTTT is visually appealing, approachable and easy to use. In Linden’s words, “IFTTT isn’t a programming language or app building tool, but rather a much simpler solution. Digital duct tape if you will, allowing you to connect any two services together. You can leave the hard work of creating the individual tools to the engineers and designers.”
IFTTT allows people to create “recipes” that connect “channels” (e.g., Instagram, Dropbox, Twitter and 56 other apps) so that “ingredients” on one (e.g., an item with the description “dog painting” appears on Etsy) become a “trigger” for an “action” on the other (e.g. “Add a new line to my Dog Paintings spreadsheet on Google Docs ”). A glance at some of IFTTT’s channels:
With virtually no promotion, IFTTT has nevertheless achieved remarkable traction since its beta launch two years ago. Its mission statement is to “enable everyone to take creative control over the flow of information.” People have created over 2 million individual “recipes” to connect their favorite websites and apps in ways that meet their own unique needs. There are tens of thousands of shared recipes for common use cases. Three million recipes are executed every day, addressing individual interests as varied as “Text me if Apple stock drops below $500” and “Post my App.net posts tagged #a16z to Yammer.”
Although Linden and his tiny team of seven have achieved an amazing amount already, the best is yet to come. With Andreessen Horowitz’s investment, 2013 will bring more and simpler recipes and exciting mobile apps. A new developer platform will enable application developers to create services that connect their application to others in new and powerful ways, opening up new functionality to users with virtually no diversion of internal engineering resources. Perhaps most exciting of all is the role IFTTT can play in the emerging Internet of Things. As everyday objects from fridges to shoes to weighing scales become equipped with communicating smart sensors, individuals’ need to create useful connections and information flows between them will far outstrip their developers’ capacity to build them. I don’t know exactly when my fridge will be capable of knowing I’m running low on milk and contacting Safeway to order more, but there’s a pretty good chance an IFTTT recipe will be involved when it happens.