If you think phones, tablets, and computers are smart now, just wait

Contextual computing is happening in ways that once seemed to be science fiction, thanks to the connectedness of everything

We spend our lives doing things. It doesn't matter whether we're at work or home. We've quickly moved to mobile devices to help make our lives (ostensibly) easier and more productive. Not that we've really succeeded: We've just changed the use case.

You used to listen to the radio when you were driving; if you got bored, you'd put in a tape or CD. Now you make a phone call and conduct business, or maybe it's a chance to keep in touch with Mom. You used to sit down and do your homework and maybe have some music on; now you still have your music, but Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook continuously ping in the background. What started out as a productivity tool very quickly becomes a device of distraction.

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People have found their own way of dealing with these distractions. They turn their alerts off, they use full-screen apps, or they don't start the clients on their tablets or laptops. Yet, when the alert comes in, there is a chime somewhere in the house letting them know anyway. It's the curse of multiple devices and always being connected.

The solution to all this disruption is contextual computing. Although it's easy to describe, it is quite hard to implement. The major mobile platform providers are all working on it in their OSes. BlackBerry was the first to do so more than a dozen years ago with the ability to turn off alerts at preset times. More recently, Apple has taken up the mantle with its do-not-disturb function in iOS, and Google's Motorola Mobility unit now has Smart Actions that adjust your alerts based on current context, such as your location and time of day.

Contextual computing is best described as giving you the information you need, when and where you need it, so you can do what you have to do. It goes much further than just providing or silencing alerts. It fundamentally changes how you do everything. The arms race has already started on the app side with Google using its big data and search capabilities to sift through your email, location, Web activities, and calendars for its Google Now service. Other companies are mining similar information in their contextual engines, used in apps like Tempo, Donna, and Alfred.

These apps look at your calendar appointments and suggest when you should leave to make to them on time (which Apple's forthcoming OS X Mavericks and iOS 7 will do as well, according to Apple's public previews). They work great when you're driving somewhere, but they can't handle local traffic in an office or academic campus: If you have a meeting in one building from 10 to 11 and the next meeting is two buildings over from 11 to 12, these travel-time prediction engines can't figure out when you should leave. But make no mistake: The capability will come eventually.

The promise of contextual computing is so much more than getting you to your appointments on time. It is the Holy Grail of having your Girl Friday, who anticipates every need and whim you will have before you even have them.

You wake up in the morning, and as you get up, today's weather is displayed next to your schedule, so you can figure out what to wear. You're running a little early but the car has less than a half a tank of gas, so your navigation system directs you to a gas station with the best price that is on your way into work. You sit down at work and start a proposal, and the Word doc that you began yesterday opens up and is ready for you to use. You step into a meeting and your minor alerts are automatically silenced, but yet when your wife calls with an emergency it rings straight through. In the middle of the meeting, you get a lunch request from one of your mates, and since you are both free at the same time, it automatically sets the calendar appointment for that time.

Contextual computing isn't limited to your smartphone or tablet; it extends to all the other items you use in your daily life. It works with the health bracelet you've been wearing to remind you to get up when you've been sitting too long or to grab some water from the cooler because you're starting to get dehydrated. Because you have your daughter's football game on your calendar, it checks the batteries in the camera to make sure they're charged and there's enough space on the memory card (it learned from previous games that you usually take 200 photos per game), so you don't run out during the game, and it moves older pictures to your online storage to make room.

Contextual computing isn't new, but it hasn't been all connected before. Those connections are now happening.

A version of this article, "If you think phones, tablets, and computers are smart now, just wait," originally appeared at A Screw's Loose and is republished at InfoWorld.com with permission (© Brian Katz). Read more of Brian Katz's The Squeaky Wheel blog at InfoWorld.com or at A Screw's Loose. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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