Ifttt; Elegant, powerful task automation

A friend who I know via an online mail list had a problem: Periodically the email system where he works gets misconfigured. The result is that messages from external domains doesn't get delivered. When this happens he says that the internal email works fine but as most of his work involves externally originated email and the admins where he works never notice when there's a problem it is an issue for him.

My friend is usually the first to notice that the external email is down but that can take a while if he's working on something so he was wondering how he could have an automatic periodic email sent from some service. He could then look for the test message once every hour or half hour and know whether everything was working right. It would be a sort of a digital canary is the email coal mine.

A few people on the list came up with some creative ideas but the simplest, by far, was to score an account on a new Web service called ifttt.

Ifttt stands for "If This Then That" which describes the structure of "Tasks" that the service will execute for you.

The "this" part is a trigger, such as "if I'm tagged in a photo on Facebook" or "if I tweet on Twitter." The "that" part is what happens when the trigger occurs, for example, "then send me a text message" or "then create a status message on Facebook."

Both triggers and actions are derived from "channels" which include Facebook, Twitter, phone calls, email, weather data, and RSS feeds (31 channels were available at the time of writing).

So, for instance, you could set up a task such as "IF tomorrow's forecast calls for rain THEN using Gmail send a message to (email address) that reports 'rain tomorrow!'" Or, to solve my friend's problem, "IF every hours at 0 minutes past the hour THEN using Gmail send 'This is your mail check. The time is now {{CheckTime}}'".

In that last example, the string "{{CheckTime}}" is an add-in variable and ifttt offers you a list of valid add-ins to choose from for each argument in a given trigger and action combination. For example, for the time check task the add-ins for the trigger are number of minutes past the hour (0, 15, 30, and 45 are supported) and for the action the valid message body add-ins are the time and the date the check is executed.

You can have up to 10 tasks active at one time (although you can define as many as you like) and each task is executed once every 15 minutes.

I like the style and of humor of ifttt; the site uses overly large type in a clean, effective layout and, for example, the "About" page has the URL "http://ifttt.com/wtf."

For now, ifttt is free but I'm guessing that they'll offer a premium service in the future that will allow more tasks to be active and perhaps more channels and specialized functions such as database storage for the results of operations. An API would be a fantastic addition allowing applications to create customized tasks on the fly.

Ifttt is a fantastic idea. It's simple, clean, useful and powerful. At present you need to either request and invite to the service or know someone with an account who has invites left (each account gets four invites to pass on when they sign up).

My friend's problem was neatly solved.

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