Toward Quietly Smart Phones

How do you recognize a technological innovation? It feels like magic. The wonder happens when an app or a gadget does something that you don't expect from technology. It can be calling a cab with a push of a button, watching a movie of your choice on the go, or playing a game with gestures in the air. The magic wears off as we change habits to incorporate the new technology into our routines. The most successful innovations fade completely into the background as they become an indispensable part of our daily lives. They become like electricity, something that we notice only when it is broken.

Today, most of us depend on smartphones. Being able to access digital content and services anywhere, anytime is a major breakthrough and has shaped the way people work and handle their personal interests. However, many of yesterday's wonders are now becoming chores. We are forced to fiddle with our phones to an extent that this digital interaction is impeding our lives as physical beings, caring for those who are (physically) around, and being able to focus on issues that don't fit into 140 characters. The act of typing with too-large fingers on a too-small screen is getting in the way of everything else.

Om Malik, an influential technology commentator, talks about the real-time nature of the Internet and how pervasive it has become with smartphones. He writes, "Some might say -- turn off the notifications and exercise some self control. I have tried that, but the behavior of constantly reaching for my iPhone has become too ingrained in my mind." For startup entrepreneurs like us, this makes perfect sense. We usually strive to develop services that 'engage' the user as much as possible. The more compulsive the relationship between the service and the user, the happier entrepreneurs and their investors usually are.

There are limits to how much technology can and should engage its users, however. Having worked with a different approach to enriching people's everyday life, we believe the next wave of truly useful services takes a different tactic: they let us focus on what's important by knowing more about us than ever. Silicon Valley visionary Robert Scoble talks about the age of context, an era of context-aware mobile gadgets that learn and can adapt to your personal context. The magic of such apps and gadgets will be in how they work quietly in the background, recording and gathering information and presenting useful things to us when the time is right.

Ironically, the way to minimize the information overload and endless fiddling is to collect even more data. By collecting and combining data from mobile sensors and online services and by analyzing it using sophisticated algorithms, the new wave of digital services can understand what's happening and what's meaningful to a particular person and provide useful insights.

The future is already here, and we are not just talking about our own project, Moves. Google Now aims to understand your life better and provide the right information at the right time and place. Apple's Siri brings together various sources of data together and provides concise answers. As these technologies are improved, we will gradually start to trust them to save us from incessantly toying with our smart devices. Such silent intelligence will help us take control of our lives. Take, for instance, personal health and wellbeing -- key concerns for most of us. Automatic tracking of physical activities and health indicators eliminates the chore of logging them manually. This will help us better understand our habits and motivate us to engage in healthier behavior.

When the new technology works well, it will be quietly smart -- and feel again like magic.