Here's how your tablet might finally "get" you

Summary:My ZDNet colleague James Kendrick wrote about a desire for a tablet that "gets" him. We might be building some of the systems to support that today...

Google Now screenshot
Google Now doesn't have the marketing cachet of Google, but it's likely to be the more successful product over the long-term.

We all have our routines for connecting into our digital lives.

For me, I pick up my iPad and see how my Hay Day farm is getting on. I used to check my email, and then Twitter. Now, I've become so obsessed with managing the day-to-day business of managing a digital, make-believe farm, a routine that's been going on for the best part of fifteen years has now been changed. Checking my email now comes second.

My ZDNet colleague James Kendrick wrote a fab piece last week on " a better way for tablets ". In it, he talks about a desire for a tablet that "gets" him.

He cites his morning routine (compared to mine: less simulated cows and goats, more RSS and email), and he talks about wanting his tablet to be "aware" -- i.e. to understand what his morning routine is, where he physically is, who or what is around in the environment and so on.

I completely agree with this, but we may already be seeing signs of this stuff coming. Although you have to look carefully and mind the dust associated with the future's construction.

Context

Every technology era has spots of technology in it that's ahead of its time. Eight years before the post-PC era BlackBerry foresaw key elements of post-PC in that it provided always-available, always-connected access to one's digital life. The way that a BlackBerry user could key into their work relationships whilst on the move was exactly the same as how post-PC devices work today across the entirety of a user's relationships.

Today there's a possibility that in two products -- Apple's Siri and Google Now -- show us what's going to happen after the post-PC era ends. And those products both presage James's desire for a device that "gets" him.

I've found Siri grossly disappointing since I first started using it. I've also found that I've become even less impressed with it as time goes on. It just doesn't do the things that it's supposed to do well enough.

But like BlackBerry, Siri does things that are unique, and that will become critical in the future technologies that could replace post-PC. Siri isn't clever because it can send an email to your spouse, it's clever because it knows who your spouse is.

It's this contextual data that is key to creating a system that "gets" the user in the way that James wants.

Google Now also looks at context and tries to make decisions based on it. The idea of Google Now is that not only does it know where your spouse is, it knows where you are, where they are, where you're supposed to be that evening, what the traffic is like, and whether you're going to make that appointment.

The promise of Google Now is not that you can ask it to email your spouse, it's that it will just go ahead and do that for you without you asking.

Relating

You might find the idea of Google emailing your spouse to tell them you're running late without any intervention from you a bit scary. It's likely that the next generation of computer users won't. Traditionally, the next generation has the stomach for things that the current generation finds unpalatable.

All of this is about relationships, and it's this relationship-centric aspect that makes me confident that this sort of technology will replace post-PC. You can think of it a "human-computer relationships" (HCR).

The idea of post-PC is that it connects you through into your digital life via relationships with the things or the people that you love. This connecting is relatively dumb, and significantly siloed off. Twitter and Facebook have their own social graphs that understand you and relationships within each one's scope, but there's no sharing or crossing over of that data.

But there's a major problem with HCR, in that everything has to be opened up in order for it to work. By delegating a computer system to have responsibility over aspects of your life, all of these silos need to be collapsed down.

Imagine the Google Now "auto-emailing one's spouse" example from above but with one partner using Google Apps for their calendar and the other partner using Office 365. Whatever HCR system is driving the connection between those two individuals, it has to see into the calendar systems of both in order to build a complete picture.

On a human level this works because each partner would tell the other what their movements were even if they couldn't see into each other's calendar. Or, to put it another way, they create another more open layer in which data is more readily exchanged. That layer, in this case, is not digital.

Where we're going at the moment though is a place where everything is become less open and more closed off, rather than more open. The free-and-easy internet that we've been used to is getting more siloed off as those making investments get more savvy about realising their returns. There's no point making massive investment in something if all you're doing is making your competitor stronger. You can only control that model by holding your user's closer to you, and that means more walls and less freedom.

Conclusion

So coming back to James's original point -- creating a tablet that "gets" him I don't think is a lack of imagination, I think it's just an issue of time and attitude. We'll gradually see systems like Siri and Google Now improve -- or more likely we'll see new disruptive systems that make those two look like clockwork curiosities.

Of those two though, consider how strongly Google is placed giving how good it is at amassing personal data and mining it for meaning. If HCR is the next big thing, it's poised to screech into it from the post-PC era leaving everyone else for dust.

To create competition in the space though, we have to open things up. We used to be more open, now we're becoming more closed. As a society, we tend to repeat things in cycles. Hopefully we'll go back to systems that are more open and we'll really start to see some interesting stuff.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Tablets

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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