Two weeks ago Color (www.color.com) launched a social photo sharing experience. It’s an interesting experience, but this is why you should be paying attention: Color, using interesting social features, launched a large-scale context engine. This is a huge move. Context has a strong positive effect on productivity. This means greater social connection opportunities, greater productivity for your company and fascinating new innovation opportunities. If you’re leading, you should be thinking about context in your computing life.
Why is context interesting? When communicating (the life blood of organizations and social interactions), context can significantly reduce the amount of time required to answer: who, what, why, where, when and how. If the answers to those questions are provided automatically as a natural, effortless part of the conversation then communication is just easier.
Intuitively, you already know this. When I call my local pizza place they greet me by name and ask if I’d like the same pie as last time. That feels good. When someone introduces me to someone else at a party and shares a common connection the conversation is easier.
Let’s expand on a scenario. Imagine you are reading a spreadsheet and have a question about some sales figures. Next to those figures you see who owns that information and you start a phone call. When they pick up that call, they get your entire context. They know what file you’re looking at, the view you see, that it’s the middle of the night where you are, your role, how you’re connected to them in the organization and a mutual colleague. You, in turn, also see similar information. When your call is connected their cognitive context switching has already occurred; you’re operating in the same space.
In that example the value of context is 1) knowing what the person is calling about which reduces the amount of time needed for query/response to understand what the call is about, 2) the information is provided to the recipient; they don’t have to spend cycles remembering the figure or taking time to look it up and 3) the call initiator didn’t have to expend energy to add data to the conversation. Software did it automatically.
As you know, productivity is the measure of production efficiency. Let’s assume that the product of this example is a decision. Productivity is determined by evaluating how much input is required to arrive at the decision. As I noted, the costs for information gathering and topic query/response are lower than a conversation not supported with data. With the same output the input is lower and therefore more productive.
Why do I categorize Color as a context engine?
Color uses this context to build a shared experience communication: “Look who else nearby loves this concert!” That shared experience enables an easy conversation (social productivity).
When a photo is taken the Color application and server (I presume) uses a variety of sensors and information to build a real time context profile of the person and the image. This could include (I don’t actually know their system) Where are they (GPS + image interpretation)? What are they looking at (the photo they took)? What are they participating in? What other devices are nearby (via Bluetooth)? What time is it? What are the environmental conditions (taken from the photo)? Who else nearby is participating?
Context is the data that can describe the situation surrounding a person, place, thing over time. Color has built an engine that can capture, transmit and represent that data.
The beginning components of context are (1) compiling data to describe the situation and (2) displaying that context in a format that is useful to the participants. The context capture points are straightforward: where did a conversation/sharing start from? What is the current task/activity?
Color’s implementation of context is the photos combined with sophisticated sensors and algorithms that they use to build your context profile. Their display, of course, is a photo sharing application that makes that contextual connection for you. Color has already announced another natural application of context: advertising. Imagine you’re at Safeco Field in Seattle. Pyramid Brewing across the street might love to advertise a post-game special to you.
Facebook has begun to venture down the context path. Their advertising engine uses context to serve more relevant advertisements and their cross-site “like” shows friend connections on non-Facebook sites.
As context usage begins to mature I expect several trends.
One, context will become an elastic, prismatic experience. For example, imagine you’re in a meeting with 10 other people. In that meeting space we have a shared context that all parties negotiate and describe. In the course of the meeting you reference an e-mail to review a past decision, that e-mail changes the shared context and adds richness with additional people connections, topic swarms, and context that is saved with the meeting. Also in the course of that meeting you have a sidebar conversation. In this simple model, you would have two context profiles. Your focus would influence (but not determine!) your primary context.
Two, context will push privacy boundaries. Context can carry a large amount of information that people may or may not be aware is being shared. Simple examples are location, permission-based information, and personal information. People will need to be able to manage this context and be aware of it. Additionally, these context engines will need to respect the regulatory and national laws.
Three, context will drive innovations in relevancy. One of the key challenges in computing is the feeling of being overwhelmed. With massive amounts of communications and information people need a way to manage the river of input. Context is one excellent method for solving the overload problem. A relevancy framework can help people keep focused and productive. Obvious solution examples are ad-hoc group formation, notification management, priority management, and managing topic pivots.
Four, your context will interpret other context using social rules. Critical to communication are social rules. Context will also be required to understand and honor the pertinent rules. For example, in some cultures hierarchy is critical in the communication process. It’s frowned upon if someone lower in the hierarchy makes direct, unsolicited contact with someone higher. Context must take these rules into account.
Five, context will begin to negotiate on your behalf. Imagine my context profile knows I’m currently using a full screen application, working on a high priority topic for a nearby deadline. If someone contacts me with a matching topic context I will likely want to communicate. It’s in-line with my task and wouldn’t require a context switch. Therefore the interruption cost would be lower and I wouldn’t have to expend energy returning to my original focus. My context profile would negotiate with a request to determine whether or not that interruption would be productive or relevant. Context will be able to negotiate to manage intrusiveness, visibility, importance and relevance.
Without much effort it’s easy to see any number of innovations in healthcare, finance, service, manufacturing, and consumer spaces. They key will be finding the right applications at the right times and proving the value propositions.
Simplistically, I think the value propositions can be broken down like this:
- personal: social interaction, life management;
- business: productivity increase and customer satisfaction.
Equally compelling is a technical discussion of how context is formed, communicated, interpreted, shared, stored and displayed. I’ll post on that in the future. Another interesting discussion is the different market components of context. Who provides the engines? How do developers leverage context? How do businesses target the right context enablement scenarios for the right gain? How are people educated about context and its use? What is the commercial value of context?
Context will play a key role in future computing and I believe it to be one of the key innovations that meaningfully moves the productivity needle in computing.
Disclaimer: I don’t know Color’s plans or their thinking. This is my interpretation of a potentially important new addition to the context space and of course my thoughts on context. And finally: the opinions and views expressed in this blog are mine and do not necessarily state or reflect those of Microsoft.