Any day now, Apple is scheduled to make an announcement that will very likely usher in the next era of smartphones. I’m very tempted to talk about that, since I know more than a few of you are anxiously awaiting news of the new iPhone 5. Or you might be interested in the new white iPod that’s likely to be announced. Or maybe you’re like several million other people and really just want to see and use the new Facebook application that will be released for the iPad. The problem is, no one really knows what will be announced at these events, so there really isn’t much to say (beyond repeating rumors, like I just did.)
So instead, I thought we’d spend our time today talking about how you can easily automate a few tasks, streamline some things in your life, and maybe get a little time back to do more important things (like reading more rumors regarding the next Apple announcement.)
One of the problems with this idea-rich environment, coupled with the technology to fairly easily create things, is that we’re being overrun by products and services. Our parents only had to worry about the staples: food, clothing, shelter. Maybe a few baubles here and there. They probably read the local paper and watched the evening news. Heck, most of them probably had to decide to buy a color television. They weren’t faced with deciphering thousands of news sources or sifting through hundreds of emails (every day). They didn’t have to deal with tens of thousands of applications they could buy for devices that didn’t exist. This explosion has led to increasing demands on our time and attention. For each of these new “feeds” you allow into your life, you make a decision to devote some margin of time and effort to it. And these aren’t just apps and games on your phone or tablet, they’re the social networks like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Intagram, Foursquare, and on and on.
The good news is that many of these services come with a cool tool that you can use to your advantage. In geek speak, it’s called an Application Program Interface (API), but you can think of it as magical inter-connected goodness that might save you some time. Here’s how it works: For many of these services, especially software products like the social networks, the programmers built in a way for them to talk to each other, which allows them to play nicely together. You may have already experienced this without realizing it. For example, web syndication allows you to gather data from one source and send it to another, meaning you can add an application to Facebook which allows you to send updates you post there to your Twitter account (and vice versa.)
Up until now, however, the APIs where really only of use to the programmers creating the applications. But one site is working on changing that. Ifttt.com (which stands for “If this then that” and is pronounced like “gift” without the g) has compiled a growing number of APIs (called “channels”) into their site and built connections between them. This allows you to simply fill in the blanks in the “if this then that” sentence to perform simple tasks. For example:
- If Ifttt sees that the forecast calls for rain tomorrow, it can send you a text message to remind you to pack an umbrella.
- You can call Ifttt and leave a voicemail message that it will automatically convert to text and send to you in an email.
- If someone tags you in a Facebook photo, Ifttt can save a copy on your Dropbox account.
- Ifttt can automatically send any photo from Instagram to your Facebook account (and save a copy on Dropbox.)
- Need to get out of a meeting? Set Ifttt to send you a text message or call your cell phone at a predetermined time.
There are currently 35 different channels supported, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Dropbox, Evernote, Instapaper, Posterous, Foursquare, and more. They are adding more channels, so if you don’t see the one you want, just send them a message. Each channel has specific tasks, and you can set up about 3-5 different tasks for each channel, making the possibilities extensive. And if you’re not quite sure where to start, Ifttt supports “recipes” that other people have created that you can simply drop into your account. If someone else has figured out how to do something you want to use, you can just use that recipe and you’re done!
Your Ifttt account is free and the website is very simple to understand and use. (After all, it’s pretty easy to think through a statement like “if this, then that.”) I suggest you start with a few of the available recipes to see how it might work for you. Then, once you get the hang of it, customize the settings to automate repetitive tasks. By then you should be able to check your Facebook updates on your new iPhone 5.