March 2015

How contextual apps can finally make smart devices smart

[Update: This article was published in VentureBeat on 4/19/15]

We all have smart products that go awry. Up until a few months ago, for example, Netflix didn’t allow the creation of different profiles, so the recommendations in my house were a strange collection based on the amalgamated viewing tastes of my wife, my two teenage daughters, my 11-year old son, and me.

This becomes particularly annoying as apps jump into the physical world and control devices. We all have experience with devices whose supposedly smart behavior turns out to be inappropriate at the time – and we end up shutting down the “intelligent” features to use them manually (or the devices end up at the bottom of a drawer).

The issue is that smart products today jump to conclusions too easily: they go from sensing to acting in one step. In the rush to get products out to market, many vendors trivialize the complexities of the real world and create products that use very basic reasoning.  Most of the time, they don’t even let users participate actively in the decisions being made.

The Rise of Contextual Applications

We are in the inflection point of a major transformation that started several decades ago. For several decades, the focus was on computers – and for all this time, we, the users, have had to comply with technology: We have had to remember our passwords. Read the manuals. Learn how to use software. Upgrade, deal with conflicts, provide maintenance and much more.

But now, the focus is shifting: to us and the world around us. Computers are cheap enough and small enough that we can afford to optimize for people, not for computers. This leads to a very different world: diversity instead of standardization. We are all constantly reconfiguring the technology that surrounds us to mold it to our needs and wants – be it by adding a smart object, downloading a new app or configuring another. This leads to unique, individual environments, and is why we hate one-size-fits-all applications, while we love things optimized for specific needs instead.