In the Realm of Web 2.0, Context is King: Part One

From March 9-12 I attended the 2010 Gartner Portal, Content, and Collaboration (PCC) Summit held in Baltimore, MD. The summit’s keynotes, track sessions, and vendor case studies covered many topics central to Roundarch’s business: User-experience, Rich Internet Applications, Web 2.0, Service-Oriented Architecture, Social Computing, Mobile Computing, and Cloud Computing. Veteran Gartner Analysts such as Ray Valdes and David M. Smith offered a cohesive perspective on portal, content, and collaboration technologies, while dazzling the crowd with Gartner’s trademark techno-market-futurism, replete with Magic Quadrants, Hype Cycles, catchy phrases such as the “Consumerization of IT,” “Monday morning action plans” for anxious CIOs, sharp insights into industry giants such as Google and Apple, and bold predictions of what tomorrow has in store for business and consumers.

Since I work at a company immersed in the stream of ideas explored by Gartner, the dialogue at the PCC Summit did not surprise me significantly. In fact, in most cases it merely re-affirmed observations of trends I’ve experienced in work with commercial and government clients. I did not depart Baltimore unaffected by the conversation, however. One concept Gartner mentioned at the PCC Summit managed to invade my brain like a selfish meme, hatching a few thoughts about the significance of Web 2.0 and how we might experience the internet once “the future is evenly distributed”– to paraphrase sci-fi novelist William Gibson.

Gartner Managing VP, Gene Phifer said repeatedly that “Context-Aware Computing” would be a major research thrust for Gartner in the months ahead. While the format of the PCC Summit, meant treatment of big themes was constrained by time and PowerPoint, Phifer made it clear that “Context-Aware Computing” involved the following:

A richer user experience leveraging information about the end user and new context-sensitive human-computer interfaces to improve the quality of the interaction and overall user engagement

Context-enriched services that use location, presence, social attributes, and other environmental information to anticipate an end user’s immediate needs, offering more-sophisticated, situation-aware and usable functions

Deeper collaboration that integrates identity, location, task, and social relationships

Building on previous concepts of personalization and advances in established technologies such as RIA, networks, mobile hardware capabilities, social computing, service-oriented architecture (SOA)

Mobile devices and the Cloud that provide the ubiquitous sensors and the network that capture and propagate context exploited by computers to proactively react to user’s needs

The emergence of new software, infrastructure and architectural approaches that support “Context-Aware Computing: and “Context-Orientation”

At first I didn’t think much of the outline of “Context-Aware Computing.” It sounded a lot like pervasive computing meets semantic web, meets One-to-One Marketing. Then I started thinking about it in light of another term with which I have a love-hate relationship: Web 2.0. In that context, the concept helped me to resolve a pestering problem I’ve had with our industry’s lingo.

Most industry insiders – taking their cue from the seminal article “What is Web 2.0? by Tim O’Reilly – likely would accept a definition of Web 2.0 that synthesizes rich user interfaces, mashable software services, and the idea that the Web is a Social/Participatory platform. Yet, bundling these three distinct concepts together and calling them “Web 2.0” always seemed arbitrary to me. Since reading O’Reilly’s article, I have been looking for a unifying theme that made these ideas hang together cohesively. Another way to say this is that I have been seeking a singular foundation that explains the key qualitative difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. I believe contemplation of Gartner’s material on Context-Aware Computing has allowed me to rest the distinction between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 on the varying primacy of content and context in the two models of the Web. I now think that the unspoken concept that glues together rich user interfaces, mashable services, and the social web is the increased importance of context over content. In Web 1.0, content was king. In Web 2.0 (and beyond?), CONTEXT is king. Let me explain by posing and attempting to answer three questions…

What’s behind the explosion in RIAs, mobile applications, and other rich user experiences on the web associated with Web 2.0?

Physical and digital context — I believe it is the realization that existing technologies and approaches can be leveraged to keep the user in the context of what he or she is doing physically or digitally and to enhance the experience by adding the context of related information or alternative representations such as visualizations — all with increasingly natural gestures as input. We want computers to work in a way that is more consistent with the context of our physical reality and technology is allowing us to close that gap.

What’s behind the excitement about mashups and software services associated with Web 2.0?

Semantic context — I believe it is the realization that technology and evolving approaches for describing our services are enabling every node on the network to create content that can be freed from a contributor’s original intent and used in infinite contexts — as long as we agree on a few core things (i.e. the interface, or service contract). This leads to efficiencies flowing from re-use (which is just applying a component in a different context), but on a deeper level it creates a fabric for each of us to create meaning out of the digital world with the flexibility we employ in our mental world. Services and service approaches lay the foundation for enriching semantic context. This transcends human-authored hyperlinks; as standards and software agents improve, machines will be able to automatically combine information that is increasingly meaningful to humans as well.

What’s behind the buzz surrounding the social applications associated with Web 2.0?

Social context – I believe it is the realization that the Web is the most flexible medium for initiating, facilitating, expanding, and persisting our social interactions that has ever evolved. Web 2.0 applications such as Facebook capture our species’ most valued form of context: social context. The content we create, seek, and find is a function of our identity, memberships, and the power of our connections to other members of our species. Web 1.0 enabled many of us to surf a sea of content and capabilities and then take separate steps to connect and share outside the context of our immediate web experience; content was primary. Web 2.0 integrates social context seamlessly into the digital experience and allows more of us to participate – multiplying the social value of the web. This social context will be interwoven to a greater degree in future evolutions of the web.

In my next post I will explore further this concept that “context is king” in Web 2.0. I will also make some predictions about how Context-Aware Computing will impact the way we design and develop digital experiences at Roundarch.