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.
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.