Into the Age of Context

I spent most of my early career proclaiming that “This!” was the “year of mobile”. The year of mobile was actually 2007 when the iPhone launched and accelerated a revolution around mobile computing. As The Economist recently put it “Just eight years later Apple’s iPhone exemplifies the early 21st century’s defining technology.”

It’s not a question of whether Smartphones have become our primary computing interaction device, it’s a question of by how much relative to other interaction mediums.

So let’s agree that we are currently living in the Era of Mobile. Looking forward to the next 5 year though, I personally believe we will move from the Era of Mobile to the Age of Context. (credit to Robert Scoble and Shel Israel for their book with that same term).

Let me first define what I mean by Age of Context. In the Age of Context personal data (ex: calendar and email, location and time) is integrated with publicly available data (ex: traffic data, pollution level) and app-level data (ex: Uber surge pricing, number of steps tracked by my FitBit) to intelligently drive me towards an action (ex: getting me to walk to my next meeting instead of ordering a car). It is an age in which we, and the devices and sensors around us, generate massive reams of data and in which self-teaching algorithms drill into that data to derive insight and recommend or auto-generate an action. It is an era in which our biological computational capacity and actions, are enhanced (and improved) by digital services.

The Age of Context is being brought about by a number of technology trends which have been accelerating in a parallel and are now coming together.

The first, and most obvious trend, is the proliferation of supercomputers in our pockets. Industry analysts forecast 1.87 billion phones will be shipped by 2018.

These devices carry not only a growing amount of processing power, but also the ecosystem of applications and services which integrate with sensors and functionality on the device to allow us to, literally, remote control our life. In the evolution from the current Era of Mobile to the future Age of Context, the supercomputers in our pocket evolve from information delivery and application interaction layers, to notification context-aware action drivers.

Smartphones will soon be complemented by wearable computing devices (be that the Apple Watch or a future evolution of Google Glass). These new form factors are ideally suited for an Era in which data needs to be compiled into succinct notifications and action enablers.

In the last 10 years, the “web” has evolved into a social web on top of which identities and deep insight into each of us powers services and experiences. It allows Goodreads to associate books with my identity, Vivino to determine that I like earthy red wines, Unilever to best target me for an ad on Facebook and Netflix to mine my data to then commission a show it knows I will like. This identity layer is now being overlayed with a financial layer in which, associated with my digital identity, I also have a secure digital payment mechanism. This transactional financial layer will begin to enable seamless transactions.

In the Age of Context, the Starbuck app will know that I usually emerge from the tube at 9:10am and walk to their local store to order a “tall Americano, extra shot.” At 9:11, as I reach street level my phone, or watch, or wearable computing device will know where I am (close to Starbucks and to the office), know my routine, have my payment information stored and simply generate an action-driver that says “Tall Americano, extra shot. Order?” A few minutes later I can pick up my coffee, which has already been paid for. These services are already possible today.

A parallel and accelerating trend which will power the Age of Context is the proliferation of intelligent and connected sensors around us. Call that Internet of Things or call it simply a democratization and consumerization of devices that capture data (for now) and act on data (eventually).

While the end number varies, industry analysts all believe the number of connected devices starts to get very big very fast. Gartner predicts that by 2020 there will be 25 billion connected devices with the vast majority of those being consumer-centric. Today my Jawbone is a fairly basic data collection device. It knows that I walked 8,000 steps and slept too little, but it doesn’t drive me to action other than providing me with a visualization of the data. In the Age of Context this will change, as larger and larger data sets of sensor data, combined with other data combined with intelligent analytics allows data to become actionable.

In the future my Jawbone won’t simply count my steps, it will also be able to integrate with other data sets to generate personal health insights. It will have tracked over time that my blood pressure rises every morning at 9:20 after I have consumed the third coffee of the day. Comparing my blood rate to thousands of others of my age range and demographic background it will know that the levels are unhealthy and it will help me take a conscious decision not to consume that extra coffee through a notification. Data will derive insight and that insight will, hopefully, drive action.

One could argue that the parallel trends of mobile, sensors and the social web are already mainstream. What then is bringing them together to weave the Age of Context? The glue is data. The massive amounts of data the growing number of internet users and connected devices generate each day.

Erik Fitzpatrick licensed CC BY 2.0

More critically, the cost of storing this data has dropped to nearly zero. Deloitte estimated that in 1992 the cost of storing a Gigabyte of data was $569 and that by 2012 the cost had dropped to $0.03.

But data by itself is just bits and bytes. The second key trend that is weaving the Age of Context is the breakthroughs in algorithms and models to analyze this data in close-to-real-time. For the Age of Context to come about, systems must know how to query and how to act on all the possible contextual data points to drive the simplified actions outlined in the examples above. The advances (and investment) into machine learning and AI are the final piece of the puzzle needed to turn data from information to action.

The most visible example of the Age of Context today is Google Now. Google has a lot of information about me: it knows what “work” is as I spend most of the time there between 9am and 7pm, it knows what “home” is as I spend most of the evenings there. Since I use Google Apps it knows what my first meeting is. Since I search for Duke Basketball on a regular basis it knows I care about the scores. Since I usually take the tube and Google has access to the London TfL data, it knows that I will be late to my next meeting.

But even though Google Now recently opened up its API to third party developers, it is still fairly Google-biased and Google-optimized. For the Age of Context to thrive the platforms that power it must be interlinked across data and applications.

Whether this age comes about through intelligent agents (like Siri or Viv or the character from Her) or a “meta-app” layer sitting across vertical apps and services is still unclear. The missing piece for much of this to come about is a common meta-language for vertical and punctual apps to share data and actions. This common language will likely be an evolution of the various deep-linking standards being developed.

Facebook has a flavour, Android has a flavour, and a myriad of startups have flavours. An emerging standard will not only enable the Age of Context but also probably crown the champion of this new era as the standard will also own the interactions, the interlinkages and the paths to monetization across devices and experiences.

The trends above are all happening around us, the standards and algorithms are all being built by brilliant minds across the world, the interface layers and devices are already with us. The Age of Context is being created at an accelerating pace and I can’t wait to see what gets built and how our day to day lives are enhanced by this new era.

Thanks to John Henderson for his feedback and thoughts on this post.