Will IFTTT, Workflow, Zapier teach us all to connect apps?

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright January 9, 2015
Summary:
Tools such as IFTTT, Workflow and Zapier are emerging to help users connect apps and services. Is this just for geeks or will normal people take it up?

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The flipside of the ever-expanding choice of cloud and mobile applications available to users today is the integration headaches they bring in their wake. Or as I prefer to say, connection headaches — integration to my mind has too many connotations of a fixed permanence that isn't appropriate in a fast-moving digital universe.

Whatever you call it, it's still a nightmare. That's irrespective whether you're looking from an enterprise perspective of trying to maintain data and process consistency across an organization — or simply trying to juggle dozens of apps on your phone as an individual user.

I almost feel we've taken a backwards step on mobile devices with all these individual apps that each do one small thing. On my PC I can have multiple apps open on my screen and I can easily view content and even drag-and-drop from one window to another (I'm doing precisely that even now as I write this). But on my iPhone I have to constantly switch from one app to another, swiping randomly through recently viewed screens to find the one I want.

It should be no surprise then that there's been an upswing in the emergence of tools that help people string or collate different apps together, even on the iPhone. If it's too much trouble for the user to chase between different apps, then let the apps do the chasing and bring the resulting content to the user.

Workflow, IFTTT, Zapier and more

Last month Thiel Fellowship winners Ari Weinstein and Conrad Kramer launched Workflow, an automation app for iOS. It allows users to create custom apps or share buttons that string together actions in different apps. For example, an app that picks up your last three photos, turns them into an animated GIF and posts it to Twitter.

It's the same principle, but applied to native iOS services, as the more established IFTTT. Pronounced as a single syllable (to rhyme with 'lift'), the name is an acronym of 'IF This Then That.' This free service aims to connect everything from Pinterest and Dropbox to Internet of Things devices.

Targetting the business market, Zapier is an equivalent service, but with a much larger pool of connectors, as called out by StartupWorld:

While IFTTT can do awesome things like turning on your Philips lights at 6pm or text you when it's raining, Zapier focuses on productivity with integrations with apps like Mailchimp, Stripe, Paypal and Zendesk.

Moving further into enterprise applications territory, last month also saw the launch of Collage, designed to provide a unified stream of notifications from Microsoft Office 365, Yammer and Salesforce Chatter, with others set to be added later. The launch announcement sums up the familiar frustrations:

Business professionals demanding anytime, anywhere access to business information are typically forced to toggle between apps as they struggle to get a complete view of work activities/updates.

The problem is that Collage's usefulness is limited by its focus on just three services, even though it helpfully does some automatic sorting to present related items together. My beef is that adding a new layer of apps that collate subsets of other applications together doesn't really help the proliferation problem.

Winning acceptance

The challenge for any of these tools is providing broad enough support for the range of applications and data sources people are likely to want to plug into. If it can only do a third or a half of the connections people need, then its value is limited.

Intriguingly, you can even say the same for native mobile platforms themselves, according to Salesforce's CTO Steve Tamm. Last month he predicted that HTML5 will ultimately prevail because it provides a more consistent platform for connecting to different applications and services. Within five years, he said, this will have brought mobile developers back from native apps to JavaScript and HTML5.

The other hurdle that platforms like Workflow, IFTTT and Zapier face is their accessibility to the average user, as Cult of Mac's Alex Heath notes in his review of Workflow:

... the biggest hurdle to overcome is its own learning curve. The app's success will rely on users creating their own workflows and sharing them, similarly to how apps like Alfred have thrived on the Mac.

Workflow 1.0 is just the beginning of where its makers want to take automation on iOS. The app will only get more useful over time, according to Weinstein.

"Our long-term ambitions are how we can make this more practical for normal people to use," he said.

My take

Ah, yes: 'normal people'. A decade ago the emergence of web services first raised the notion that users would be able to easily join small grains of functionality together from different providers. Someone even coined a three letter acronym for this putative class of tools: the personal service builder — and back then I got quite excited about its potential.

The trouble is, they have never been accessible enough to the average user to really catch on. While they've improved substantially since a decade ago (when even the simplest required considerable specialist skills) it's still not a 'normal' thing to do in the same way that, say, using a spreadsheet has become commonplace.

Will the wider uptake of tools like IFTTT, Zapier and Workflow start to seed the necessary skills out to a broad enough subset of the population for it to start catching on now? Perhaps the rising interest in learning coding thanks to initiatives like Code.org and Code Club will help to spur uptake.

I'd like to hope so, because I'm still a big fan of the concept. But it's a double-edged sword: if it does catch on, it will cause even more headaches for those charged with governance of IT in the enterprise.

Image credit: © jazzia - Fotolia.com.