The blog.

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.

ContextHub: an emerging platform for Context

Over the past four years, I have been fascinated at the speed at which the world has adopted mobile technologies: The advent of the App Store distribution model for software and media opened up new sources of revenue and dramatically accelerated what was already a fast adoption rate of smartphones: estimates peg today the global number of mobile users at 4.5 Billion, roughly two-thirds of the world population.

The advent of mobile, coupled with the rapid evolution of cloud-based offerings and proliferation of API’s everywhere, has drastically changed the technology landscape – the world today looks very different than it did just five years ago.

Our educational crisis: The problem is bigger than it seems

It is painfully obvious that our current approach to education has serious problems. Symptoms manifest themselves in a variety of ways: unequal access to education, lack of student engagement, inadequacy of existing curriculum, high school dropout rates, inability for graduating students to find work, and many more.

To help diagnose the problem, many experts point to the PISA report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that scores and ranks students from different countries across the world in several dimensions, including reading, math and science. The results are deeply troubling – in every case, the US is far below the countries that performed best in these dimensions.

However, the problem is bigger than that.

Refocusing your strategy

As I discussed in my previous post, when companies grow they tend to lose strategic focus. This happens as they change their business model over time to find more effective ways of doing business, and as they tactically chase revenue from the customers they manage to get. The way out to get out of this quagmire is by taking three steps:

Losing strategic focus

When companies are founded, there is normally a single vision that identifies the purpose of the company. A powerful market need. A set of target customers. A compelling value proposition. Things look beautiful on paper.

However, as founders quickly discover, no plan survives contact with reality. Once they start interacting with the market by selling to a few customers here and there, they begin adding requested features, making changes to their value proposition, and adjusting their business model to fit circumstances they encounter.

Towards a World of Smart Objects

As the cost of computing continues to drop, adding ‘smarts’ to everyday objects is moving from a technical curiosity to a compelling, urgent business need. Every object that consumes power will eventually become smart; and in a world of pervasive connectivity, every object that is smart will eventually become connected.

Is your startup a lifestyle business?

Do you believe your startup ought to be featured in TechCrunch in an article that announces you were just acquired for $200M? Do you dream of hyper-growth, customers flocking to your site by the millions and changing the world?

One way to know if this is in the cards for you, is by reviewing your priorities.

From Devices to Ecosystems

As computing has become cheaper and connectivity pervasive, the emphasis of our relationship with technology has changed. In the developed world, instead of optimizing technology purchases on the basis of cost, we now optimize them around use cases.

The Giant Pendulum

In today’s technology industry, having a better product is not enough to win. Ten years ago, you could produce a component that was better, faster or cheaper than the competition and you could be reasonably certain that, as long as you executed properly, sales would go up and profits would increase. Things are not so simple any more.

One of the reasons is that, as the industry moves beyond the PC, it is quickly moving from a horizontal, modular structure to a more integrated vertical structure with competing ecosystems – something we had not had for quite some time.