Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Decade Of Finding Context

Um, did nobody notice that the mobile Internet turned 10 years old this summer? I was going over some old documents and realized that I started working on Nokia's WAP Toolkit (later Nokia Mobile Internet Toolkit) in 1999, and at that time Nokia hadn't even released their first WAP phone yet, so WAP couldn't have been too old at that time. And indeedy, I just found a reference to WAP Forum, the organization of telephone companies coming together to formalize the WAP standard for the mobile Internet, formalizing itself somewhere around the Summer of 1998.

10 years of trying, and what we finally are getting is the real Internet, but slowly changing. I can't fault WAP for what it was trying to do; within the context of the time a whole new stack of technologies made total sense to deliver information to the mobile phones. The problem is that they used words like 'Internet' and 'browsing', creating expectations no 4x25 character LCD phone could fulfill.

Since the first days I always heard stories of how WAP would be great not to play Bejeweled with or download and review a spreadsheet, but for getting coupons. "You'd be close to a pizza or a Starbucks and then you'd automatically get a coupon and that would drive traffic into the stores and the stores pay for that, man" was always the usecase bandied about, which in my cynical days made me describe myself as someone who worked in "the Mobile Pizza-Coupon Delivery Industry". The scenario never worked out, because you always had to find out where the phone was before you could send the right coupon, and nobody could make up their minds if the consumer should pull coupons (i.e. have to try to fetch one every time they were in a new shop) or get them pushed (i.e. be bombarded). Both options suck. Neither of them are going to 'surprise and delight' anyone. To put it in terms I'd hear while working at Disney, there was never any magic in delivering coupons. Especially since the scenarios were always about making hapless consumers buy and getting money from shopkeepers for delivering this crap, never fundamentally about making people happy.

What you need to deliver magic is to know the user's context. Fulfill the anticipation. Either by creating the context and creating the anticipation by making the park and the rides, or knowing where the user is and what they want. Location-based services are all about knowing the user's context: where are you, where do you want to go, how can I help you with that, what can I give you at those places? It's not the only piece of context you need to deliver magic, but it is a very important one (which is why Disney controls its contexts in the parks so), one that manufacturers have been trying to put into devices as fast as financially possible, and application developers have pounced on to unlock with applications. A whole industry, GPS-devices / sat-navs, was created in the 90s around this piece of context, a viable and very big industry, because there was such demand to get help when, well, navigating this context. Now in this millennium this industry is being networked so that the devices can update the context live. And thus merging with phones, becaue they do networking and communication.

We want our mobile devices to help us. To really help us, they need to know our context. Location is one piece, and it is making life so much easier. I have moved to enormous cities twice in the last 2 years, and I am navigating them like I have always lived here, saving so much time. But context is more than Location. The next one to lick is Intent: what is the user doing? Can I, as a mobile device, disturb? How can I help? This one will be a bit trickier, and it can wait until Location has been fully exploited and played out. But start thinking about it.