IFTTT – automation for the web

Have you ever seen any of the predictions from the 50s and 60s? You look at the Jetsons or some home magazines and they all seem to be predicting that technology would make our lives better, easier. That things would be quicker and we’d have more time. It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way, though, does it?

People also say our world is getting smaller and, thanks to the internet it does seem to be, but our digital world is getting ever bigger, more spread out. Sometimes parts of my digital world have felt a little isolated, like islands in a huge ocean. If only someone could build bridges between the islands.

A few years ago Yahoo made a good start with their Pipes web application, taking the Unix idea of “piping” output from one application into another and using this to manipulate data sources of different types. But Yahoo pipes is a geek tool and not always easy to apply to those services we use every day. It’s definitely data-centric as opposed to task-centric.

If This Then That

In the last year or so I discovered IFTTT.com (pronounced like “gift” without the G) which stands for If This Then That. It’s an incredibly simple concept; it uses a cause and effect relationship to connect up the remote parts of the online world (and even some bits of the real-world, more on that later) .

IFTTT speaks of channels (the individual islands), triggers (“if this”), actions (“then that”) and recipes which are the combination of the above. What’s more, recipes can be shared and reused which means that much of what you want to do has already been done before!

There are 59 channels, covering everything from the usual suspects such as Facebook and Twitter to niche applications like Salesforce Chatter and Yammer to real-world applications like Withings, WeMo and blink(1). There are also some special channels: Date & Time, Weather, Phone and SMS.

So far I have a mere 24 recipes and I’m going to share a few with you.

I’ve got my Blogger account set up to automatically post to Facebook. This is something I think WordPress can do automatically, but of course Google largely ignore that Facebook even exists.

There’s the automatic backup of my facebook and instagram pictures to DropBox, just in case anything happens to either service. It also saves on downloading them if I ever want to use them for anything else!

If I start reading an article on Google Reader and find it a little too long to read on a screen and a little too interesting to ignore, I just add a special tag “instapaper” and it gets picked up, added to my instapaper reading list and automatically sent to my kindle to read in comfort later!

If the weather is going to be too rough tomorrow to cycle to work I get a message on Google Talk (I tend to have a GMail tab open all day).

The real world integration really interests me, but I haven’t got there yet. This, actually, was what first drew me towards IFTTT; I first heard of it on the Kickstarter page for the Pebble watch. I love the thought of automatically turning on a fan when the temperature is going to be high, or automating the outside lights. You could use it to turn on an alarm when your favourite stock goes up or down. The possibilities are literally limited by your imagination.

Gradually people are starting to try and find solutions to the separated parts of our online world, but no one seems to be doing it quite a powerfully as IFTTT. They actually seem have made it possible to make your life easier and automate more, instead of being slaves to the machines. If you haven’t already I’d definitely encourage checking it out, especially if you feel your online world is getting too big.

Do you use any tools to automate your digital life? Or how about tools to help draw the various parts of your online and real world activities together in one place? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Love Infographics? If so, you’ll love visual.ly

Infographics – love ’em or hate ’em, they’re cropping up more and more on the Internet. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, they are large images that display information in a graphical form. They’re often used to simplify complex or large sets of information, like breaking down the typical user base of a trendy web service. Sure, that could be done in a spreadsheet, but that’s not very attractive to look at.

If you enjoy browsing infographics, or are looking to use some on your site, visual.ly is a great resource. It acts as a repository for infographics submitted by other users, which you can embed on your own site. If you want to take a shot at creating infographics yourself, there are a few automatic ones that take information from your Facebook or Twitter account that you can play with.

What about creating your own custom infographics? Well, other than the template ones, you have two options. First, if you’re good with a graphics package, just create it yourself and upload it for others to see. There is a second option where you can partner with a designer to tell your story through infographics but the prices for this start at… wait for it… $4,000 (USD). That’s well out of the reach of joe public, although for a company looking to leverage the popularity of this medium, it’s fairly realistic.

For me, the main attraction is being able to play with the template infographics, and browse the library of user submissions with an eye to using some of them on this and other sites. Why not check it out and see what you think?

And speaking of template infographics, here’s one I created in just a few minutes on how the Geek-Speak Facebook page is performing:

create infographics with visual.ly

Why You’ll Be Able To Ditch Your Credit Card for Your Phone

Google WalletThis is a guest post by Andreas Nicolaides of MoneySupermarket.com.

As everything is becoming quicker and easier in this technically advanced day and age, it comes as no surprise that new developments will soon allow us to pay for purchases without actually having to open our wallets. Google is introducing the new Google Wallet, a virtual wallet that combines details of your payments and credit cards with special offers and discounts all together on your smart phone and online.

How does it work?

The idea behind Google Wallet is to have all your relevant card details safely stored in one place, your virtual wallet. That information is accessed via your mobile phone as and when you need it by using the special PayPass reader available at the check-out area of a shop. Simply pass your phone by the reader and your details will be transferred instantly and the payment made. It is quick and easy and means that all you need to take to the shop is your mobile phone.

The process works in a similar way online, offering an extra level of security when buying over the internet. When you buy online, just look for the Google Wallet symbol and you can make your purchase quickly and easily by simply signing into your Google account.

Is this really a safe way to pay?

For many people, the question of security is at the forefront of their minds. Google has said that the online wallet has been designed to be safe and offers many security features that current methods of payment don’t have. Before you start to use the technology, you will be asked to set up your own PIN, which you will then need to enter before making a purchase, in the same way you use the PIN on your current credit cards.

All your personal details will be safely encrypted on a computer chip within your mobile phone, which Google call the Secure Element. This chip will only work with certain programs, so it can’t be accessed by any other rogue technology. The PayPass reader also uses its own encryption technology to make sure your details are protected from the minute they are sent from your phone.

In theory, this could be a fast and convenient way to make a payment and means you can keep all your information in one place instead of carrying various cards around with you. All you will need to do is enter your PIN before passing your phone across the reader machine.

One worry is what will happen if you were to lose your phone? According to Google, the layers of security surrounding your details means if someone were to find your phone, they wouldn’t be able to access your virtual wallet unless their knew your PIN. However, to be completely safe, it might be worth cancelling your credit cards regardless.

What do you think of Google Wallet? Is it the future of payments, or just one big security risk? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. 

Picfull – simple photo filtering… and it’s free

The picfull interface showing a list of photo filters and a stylised image

Sometimes you just want to do something simple online, and it ends up becoming a real faff. Image editing is one of those areas, with a load of offering on the Internet that, in some cases, rival the capabilities of the almighty Photoshop. That’s great if you are after something comprehensive, but if you just want to much around with your photos it can get a little overwhelming

Picfull is firmly at the “simple” end of the scale. Upload a photo, apply some filters, and that’s it. You can layer the filters on top of each other if you desire, giving you the ability to come up with interesting combined effects, but the overall experience is one of simplicity.

The site’s creators tell us, “While there is a flood image editing sites out there, we are focusing on providing unique, high quality photo filters that are truly easy to use. Our selection ranges from vintage filters to bolder modern ones, each of which has its own set of parameters that can be tweaked by the user in real time. Plus, multiple filters can be applied to the same photo, allowing for almost endless variations.”

Picfull isn’t going to float your boat if you want to do any complex image editing, but if you’re after a quick and easy way to give your photos a different look it might just fit the bill.

…and, yes, it does have the obligatory Obama poster effect ;)

Down for everyone, or just me?

Have you ever had trouble accessing a website and wondered whether it was your computer or the site that was causing the problem? I know I have, and I’m never sure whether it’s my connection or not. When this happens to you, the site Down For Everyone Or Just Me? can help with your diagnostics.

There’s every likelihood that you’ve head of this site before – it’s not new – but it’s worth bringing to your attention despite that as it’s very useful.

Just visit the site, enter the address of the site you want to check, and hit enter… and you’ll either be told that the site is down or whether “it’s just you”.

So next time you’re tempted to ask on Twitter, “Is Mashable down?”, check Down For Everyone Or Just Me? first. You might find your answer more quickly.

Internet Access: Is it a human right?

I read with interest a report on Mashable about a new UN declaration that states Internet Access is a human right, and disconnecting people from the Net is against International Law. The main reason I think it’s interesting is that, not too long ago, Internet access was seen more as a luxury than a necessity.

It’s fascinating to see how that view has changed now, with Internet access being seen as much more than a mere luxury item.

Reading through the UN report (yes, I have read it) also makes for very interesting reading if you can handle the necessarily formal tone of the writing. I particularly liked this quote from the Conclusions and Recommendations section of the report:

“Unlike any other medium, the Internet enables individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders. By vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is an “enabler” of other human rights, the Internet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole.”

Wow – and I thought it was just for playing games and tweeting! Seriously, though, think back to those days when the Net was populated solely by bespectacled geeks writing in AOL chat rooms. Not that there’s a problem with being a geek, obviously, but there was a definite nerdy perception of Internet users. Now we see the Internet described as an enabler of human rights which contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole.

With this in mind, the UN recommends against restricting people’s Internet access unless there is a clear legal reason for doing so and an understanding that Internet blocks are the least restrictive course of action in any given case. The Special Rapporteur also expresses concern that legitimate online expression is being criminalised in contravention of States’ international human rights obligations, for example shutting off the Internet to prevent messages spreading that the government would prefer to censor.

It seems to me that the core “human right” here is the right to express an opinion and the right to access information rather than the right to have an Internet connection itself. It’s just that the Internet is such a powerful and all-pervasive tool for these ends, the two are starting to become almost inseparable.

I’d be very interested to know what you think about this. Is the UN right to say that removing someone’s Internet access could count as a breach of human rights? Is the Internet really a great tool contributing to the progress of humankind? Do you have something else you want to say about this issue? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

Infomous: Creating clickable content and information maps

Data visualisation is a hot topic these days. As individuals and companies generate and try to deal with more and more data, there is a real risk that we become data-rich, but information-poor. That is, we have loads of data at our disposal, but lack the means to interpret and understand it in a meaningful way.

There are plenty of data visualisation tools out there, and one of the newer contenders in this area is Infomous. Infomous is currently in beta, and you can request an account from the site if you like what you read here. When I requested my account, there was around a two week lead-time between request and receiving login details.

So what does Infomous actually do? Well, according to the signup message, “Infomous is an exciting new way to provide your users with a superior online exploration and navigation experience. At the same time, you can use Infomous as a revolutionary, effective way to deliver contextually relevant advertisement while gaining superior insights into the behavior of your users.”

In simple terms, point Infomous at a website, RSS feed, or Twitter search, and you will get a visual web of the information found there and the relationships between various pages or tweets. For instance, I pointed Infomous at Geek-Speak and it came up with this “map” of the most recent content:

Infomous map of Geek-Speak

Infomous map of Geek-Speak

It’s interesting to see that the content words are largely grouped by the post they appeared in… there isn’t much cross-posting. This is an accurate reflection of what happens on the site, but actually serves as something of a reminder that I could be referring to other posts a little more often in my writing. So the simple act of mapping the recent content on Geek-Speak has provided an interesting diagram, a map that I could embed to allow users to navigate (the words are clickable on embedded maps, which makes them function somewhat like a tag cloud) and given me some impetus to change the way I write.

Infomous for Twitter does much the same as for any website, but you can enter a Twitter search (such as the name of a celebrity or event), or follow a certain user. When I entered my own Twitter username, cdhinton, this is the map I ended up with.

Infomous map for Twitter: @cdhinton

Infomous map for Twitter: @cdhinton

Again, much like a tag cloud, the things I write about most are the most prominent. By hovering over any term, a list of relevant tweets is displayed so you can see the context that led to that particular word being included in the map. If you want a quick overview of what another user talks about, stick their name in the generator and see what you end up with – it can be quite interesting.

So, is Infomous any good? It’s not a full-blown Business Intelligence tool, but it does what it does well. It’s great for creating quick maps of online information, and provides a novel method of navigation and advertising delivery (advertisements are appended to the content lists when you hover over a word). It can help you get an overview of a site, twitter search, news subject, or what a twitter user writes about and, best of all, it’s free while in beta.

To request a beta account, visit Infomous.com.

Which type of surfer are you?

Internet (Almost) EverywhereThis is a guest post by Jessica Lowe.

Choosing the best way to go online on the move can seem like a bit of a minefield. There’s a wide selection of technology to choose from: Smartphones, laptops and tablets, plus a range of deals to suit all different types of Internet user. It’s not a case of simply finding the cheapest mobile broadband deal; what might be cost-effective for one person won’t be for another so you must think carefully about what type of web surfer you are before you take the plunge.

Social surfer

If you mainly want to go online to update your Facebook status and tweet what you had for breakfast, then a Smartphone will probably suffice. There’s a massive range of looks and functionality available, with models to suit music lovers, app enthusiasts and the email obsessed.

Contracts are usually a popular choice, as buying a phone outright can be very expensive. Make sure you check what the deal covers, though – ideally calls and internet usage – if you go over your limits you could be in line for a hefty bill. Pay as You Go options are available, but if you go online a lot, these probably aren’t the best option.

Practical surfer

If you require a bit more functionality, the ability to do work on the move and the option to download lots of music and even films, then a laptop’s probably best. To get mobile broadband, you’ll need a dongle, which simply fits into the USB port.

As with a Smartphones, there are Pay as You Go and contract options available. If you’re just looking at the odd website and sending a few emails, then Pay as You Go might suffice. If you need lots of data allowance, for TV shows and the latest tunes, then a contract with unlimited usage will be better. Some contracts come with a laptop thrown in for free – perfect if you need new kit.

Uber cool surfer

For a serious shot of style over substance then a tablet’s the way to go. Dominated at the moment by the iPad, 2011 will see more competitively priced alternatives coming to the market. They don’t have the functionality of a laptop and you can’t make calls (at the moment – but who’d want to put a ten inch screen to their ear anyway?) What they are is gorgeous looking with a great user experience.

For the iPad, to access mobile broadband you need an iPad SIM – like a phone SIM but half the size. In order to not muck up its sleek lines Apple did away with USB ports, so no room for a dongle. Make sure your iPad is a 3G version; if it’s not, you won’t be able to access the Internet using mobile broadband, only Wi-Fi.

And if you still need help making the mobile broadband decision then comparison sites, like Broadband Genie, can help.

Jessica Lowe writes on behalf of Broadband Genie and Mobile Phone Genie; the independent comparison websites for broadband, mobile broadband and mobile phones.

Post image by Jeremy Brooks – used under Creative Commons License.

OnLive: Gaming in the Cloud

Cloud computing is the “in thing” at the moment. Thin clients accessing services on servers that enable you to access your work anywhere. Cloud gaming hasn’t had as much hype as the rest of the cloud scene, but I reckon that’s all about to change.

OnLive is, quite simply, amazing. It’s a cloud gaming service, running games on servers in state of the art data centres. A thin client on your local computer relays control information to the data centre, and the resulting video output to your desktop. This is all done over the Internet at, according to the OnLife website, “blindingly fast speeds”. Since all the heavy computational stuff is handled by the data centre, all your computer has to be able to do is display the graphics and maintain a fast Internet connection (3mbps minimum, 5mbps recommended).

So, don’t have a 3D graphics card? Me neither – my laptop isn’t exactly a gaming powerhouse. Despite that, I’m able to play some of the latest 3D games via the OnLive client.

OnLive is not officially available in the UK yet, but it’s still possible to sign up and play. There’s even a PlayPack beta that will give you access to just over twenty games ranging from Unreal Tournament III to Lego Batman to World of Goo. The only downside is that the controls are a bit sluggish, making it hard to aim accurately in some of the First-Person Shooters, but I’m willing to put that down to the fact that I’m connecting to a data centre across the Atlantic. Hopefully the UK release, with its Welsh data centre, will alleviate that. And when will that be? Well, OnLive themselves haven’t given any dates, but a number of news sites are indicating a late-2011 launch.

If you’re not in the mood for actual playing, you can watch others play in the Arena, or watch Brag Clips, short videos users have recorded to show off their finest moments. Think of it as game TV, without the commentary or commercial breaks.

OnLive is a fascinating technology, and a real leap forward in terms of cloud gaming. I mean, I remember playing MUDs as a child and teenager but this is something altogether different. It lets you play games your computer has no hope of running on its own, and the concept of buying a game without having to download it is very clever. I’m very much looking forward to seeing this officially launched in the UK, whenever that happens.

If you want to try OnLive out, head on over to http://www.onlive.com/, sign up and download the client. Let us know what you think in the comments. And if you’re already a US user, why not tell us what the service is like when you’re in its home country?

Drupal gets an update with version 7.0

Get into a conversation with bloggers and web developers about their favourite content management system and you’ll soon come across the name “Drupal“. Drupal is the CMS of choice for several large website and, despite having a reputation for being difficult to use, offers powerful customisation and content creation facilities.

Well, the Drupal developers have been working hard at creating improvements, and version 7.0 is now out.

Have a look at this video from the Drupal guys and gals to get an idea of what you can expect:

Drupal 7 Marketing Video from Lullabot on Vimeo.

My own experience of Drupal, with previous versions, has been that it’s an immensely powerful system but very hard to get your head around. However, with 7.0, I think it’s time to take another look and see if those usability improvements have made it easier to use.

Do you use Drupal to power your website? Why, or why not? Do you have any tips to share? Leave a comment and tell us your thoughts.

[via Mashable]