As of March of this year, half of all US mobile phone subscribers had a Smartphone. This in my opinion is more than just a number. It is a tipping point for applications. It is safe to say that we are now in an app economy as far as mobile phones are concerned. But the number has significance beyond just being a tipping point because it is a tipping point for thinking about applications.

What do I mean by that? Applications designed for the desktop or enterprise environments typically exist in a sandbox. That sandbox can be as small as a user’s desk or the entire enterprise but nonetheless a sandbox. Their function and focus is to provide the tools needed to complete a task within the confines of that sandbox. But these apps for the most part ignore user contexts. For example, a CRM application typically does not take into consideration a user’s location nor does an app like MS Office (other than language localization). But mobile apps need to be different because mobile is different. A mobile phone is not just another device. It is a beacon in your pocket that is constantly aware of where you are, what’s around you. It is also aware of your preferences and social network and what transactions you prefer. And one more thing – mobile identifies the user uniquely, not just from a device standpoint but as an aggregate of all the factors mentioned above. So it follows then that Context must define Content. But what are these contexts that app developers should consider? There are fundamentally three.



Not all apps can take advantage of all three but should take advantage of at least one. It is hard to say that one of the above mentioned contexts is more powerful or more important than the others. Each can be powerful depending upon the app or the content. For example, ecommerce applications benefit significantly from taking advantage of location while for a CRM app, contacts and calendar are more critical than other contexts.

Context = Creative Destruction

The use of contexts in app development is not just about driving new user experience and value for users; it is about driving new business models as well. The use of contexts increases the app’s value to the point where in many instances a new revenue model can be implemented. For example, wireless phone companies that by design are able to capture user locations can monetize this “data” in a variety of ways, advertising being one of them. Similarly apps that used to be sold on a per license basis can shift their revenue models to leveraging contextual data as opposed to per user charges. In that respect, context is not only valuable, it is disruptive. The first wave of context aware apps we see have typically been those that would anyway have been free - Apps such as Instagram, Pinterest and Zoomingo (local shopping application).

Increasingly, I predict that we will see whole industries that shift their business models to take advantage of contexts. Newspapers and media are a prime example. While many newspapers are experimenting with paywalls, I believe that a larger opportunity exists for them to exploit user contexts. News publishing today uses what could be termed as an “in-out” model, that is publishers and editors decide what content should be created, publish it and hope that readers will find it interesting. It is the traditional content first driven approach. But what is relevant to me as a reader depends upon my current context. And what is relevant for me today may not be relevant tomorrow. It calls for a more dynamic approach to presenting content, where content to be presented is selected based on a combination of contexts. In other words, an “out-in” model. Doing so improves their ability to deliver advertising thereby potentially increasing revenue.

The same is true for retail. Most mobile retail websites are mere reproductions of online properties but should they be? Online retail websites suffer from the same contextual ignorance as other apps. For example, a mobile retail app would be much more powerful if it could detect a person’s physical proximity to a store. Imagine how small business retailers could benefit from such capabilities. Think about applications like Endomondo that track your physical fitness activities. Well over 5 million users have downloaded and use Endomondo. Consider how useful that data would be to an outfit like REI for targeting and creating customized offers. Here’s another example and a personal one. I am an avid photographer, but not a very good one. I try to learn about photography but that typically happens before or after I am out taking photographs. But the most appropriate context for me to quickly learn tips is when I am taking photographs. Cameras already track locations and embed them in pictures. They already sense light conditions. But this data is not used to educate the photographer! Could it be used to provide tips at the time the photo was being taken? Or could suggestions be given as to how to improve the photograph with examples of the best possible settings? Would it make amateurs like me to more likely to buy a particular camera brand? Would it facilitate brand loyalty? I believe the answers to all of the above are a resounding yes!

Context = Engagement

Indeed, most websites retail or not suffer from the same issue. Even corporate, customer facing websites are mere one-way information dispensing media rather than a context aware, interactive medium that facilitates two way engagements. In fact the very term “engagement” needs to be redefined in the mobile age.  Engagement was largely defined in terms of giving users the content they want/need. But in the mobile age, I believe that engagement should be about the interaction users want and need. It follows then that if context defines interaction then adding contexts fuels a more powerful engagement that can impact costs and revenue.

In Conclusion

Successful mobile applications need to score high on relevance. Relevance is a function that takes into consideration not just content but also all the factors that surround and influence the appeal of that content. This means that app developers have to re-think their applications for the mobile age. And not just re-think but they have to get mobile DNA into the entire organization.