IFTTT: Simple code "recipes" for the non-programmer
How do you get started coding, when you’ve never learnt a programming language? Even to the experienced eye a page of code can look unintelligible, lines of letters and numbers that only mean something to the developer who put them together. It’s a lot like trying to describe knitting over the phone, in Latin. What’s needed is a way of programming simple applications that doesn’t look like code at all.
That’s where a service like IFTTT comes in. IFTTT, short for If This Then That, is a simple tool for programmatically automating tasks, providing a glue that links consumer and enterprise web services. The developers behind the service have created a bare-bones site that focuses on creating and sharing action-driven simple workflows that join together web services. There’s no fancy editor, no complicated user interface; just a simple step-by-step approach to building (and sharing) applications.
The model behind IFTTT is very simple: triggers and actions fit together to make recipes, using data as ingredients. It’s as easy as thinking “if this happens, then do that”, making an IFTTT recipe the very essence of a simple program. The recipe metaphor makes a lot of sense. We’ve all followed the instructions on a packet of brownie mix to make just the cake the manufacturers designed – and then we’ve started to add our own ingredients to the mix, changing a triple chocolate brownie into a chocolate orange ginger brownie with a dash of espresso.
IFTTT is much like that customized brownie mix. Taking triggers and actions and fine tuning the ingredients means that you can bake an application that meets your needs, even if you’re using the same components as everyone else. You just make the tweaks you need to get the results you want – and if it doesn’t work first time, you can go back again and start over.
Web APIs are everywhere, but they’re often complex and poorly documented. What the team behind IFTTT has done is to take a selection of popular sites and services, and extracted the APIs that you’re most likely to want to use. Those APIs are then wrapped up as channels, with the data they need treated as ingredients in your IFTTT recipes.
IFTTT has 59 different channels, from services like Facebook, Evernote, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Yammer. Some are consumer services, some have an enterprise focus. Some are just inputs (what IFFTT calls "triggers"), some are outputs (called "actions"), and others are both. All you need to do is activate a trigger to use it in your recipes – a process that’s as easy as signing into a site from IFTTT, and giving it permissions to work with IFTTT.
So, for example, if you want to build a recipe that sends a message to a Yammer group when a team member uploads a file to a shared Dropbox folder, you’ll start by activating the Dropbox channel.
Once activated, you get two trigger options. One fires when a new file is uploaded to your public folder, and one when a new photograph is uploaded. Once you choose the trigger to use, IFTTT then walks you through the steps needed to create your program. For a Dropbox-driven app, you can choose a sub-folder to monitor, or just use the default public folder.
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