context

This is what comes after search

May 4, 2014
Obsession
Mobile Web
May 4, 2014

This article has been corrected.

The average person with an Android smartphone is using it to search the web, from a browser, only 1.25 times per day, says Roi Carthy, head of special projects at Tel Aviv-based mobile startup Everything.Me. That isn’t just bad news for Google, which still relies on ads placed along search results for the bulk of its revenue—it also signals a gigantic, fundamental shift in how people interact with the web. It’s a shift upon which fortunes will be made and lost.

Carthy knows how often people use search on Android because once you install his company’s Everything.Me software, it replaces the home screen on an Android smartphone with one that is uniquely customized to you. And then Everything.Me collects data on how often you search, plus a whole lot else, including where you are, where you go, which apps you use, the contents of your calendar, etc.

This kind of data collection is key to how Everything.Me works, and if Carthy and his investors, who have already sunk $37 million into his company are right, it’s the sort of thing many other companies will be doing on smartphones, all in the name of bringing people what comes after search.

Context is the new search

We’re accustomed to turning on our phones and seeing the same set of icons in the same place every time. But Everything.Me upends this interface convention, and shows people different icons depending on the context in which they find themselves. For example, if Everything.Me knows you’re in a new city, it will show you apps that could aid your navigation in that city—like Uber and Lyft—even if you’ve never downloaded them before. Or, based on apps you and people like you have enjoyed in the past, Everything.Me will show you games and entertainment apps under an “I’m bored” tab. (Tabs for different pages full of apps is one way Everything.Me allows users to tell the phone even more about their current context.)

If it’s time to eat, Everything.Me will show you restaurants nearby you might enjoy, and if it’s time to go out, it will show you activities and hotspots you’re likely to want to check out.

Carthy says that, in contrast to the paltry number of times users of Everything.Me are searching the web each day, they’re engaging in context-based interactions with their customized home screens dozens of times a day.

In other words, in the old days, if you wanted to do something—navigate to the restaurant where you’ve got a dinner reservation—you might open a web browser and search for its address. But in the post-search world of context—in which our devices know so much about us that they can guess our intentions—your phone is already displaying a route to that restaurant, as well as traffic conditions, and how long it will take you to get there, the moment you pull your phone out of your pocket.

Most consumer tech giants are piling into context

Context-aware software for smartphones is all the rage among tech giants. In just the past year, Twitter bought Android home screen startup Cover, Apple bought smart assistant Cue, Yahoo bought Cover competitor Aviate, and of course Google has pioneered the field of learning everything about a person so that it can push data to them before they even know they need it, with its Google Now service.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has been especially explicitly about what this new age of context means. “Contextual search aims to give people the right information, at the right time, by looking at signals such as where they’re located and what they’re doing—such as walking or driving a car,” she said at a recent conference. “Mobile devices tend to provide a lot more of those signals….When I look at things like contextual search, I get really excited.”

Notice that Mayer said “contextual search” and not just “context.” That’s a nod to the fact that software designed to deliver information based on context is still using search engines to get that information, it’s just that the user doesn’t have to interact with the search engine directly.

Search was always a preliminary solution to the problem of how to interact with the global hive mind

If you think about it, it’s remarkable how little Google’s desktop search engine has changed since the service debuted. When we type google.com into a web browser, we’re confronted with nearly the same minimalist search box people encountered when the service debuted. The web was a very different place then, there were mostly static pages where today we use apps, and in many corners it was dominated by sites that hardly exist any longer.

Search is, in essence, a command-line interface for the web. Command-line interfaces are what came before the “graphical user interface” popularized by the Macintosh and Microsoft Windows, and they’re popular among the engineers who actually build the web. So it’s no surprise that the world’s first universal interface for the web was, after all, simply a box into which you type some text, and can even append operators like “site:cnn.com” or “filetype:pdf.”

Context is where web giants will compete to be the next Google.com

That there is so much competition in “context” software indicates just how important all the giants of technology think it will be. Google, of course, has an early head start. (It also already has a close relationship with Everything.Me, says Carthy.) By building up an arsenal of context-aware user interfaces, including Google Now, Android for Wearables and some kind of contextual home screen app launcher like Everything.Me, Google has the potential to do things that could make the iPhone seem much less functional compared to the average Android phone.

That Google is ahead in this race also indicates that the company is prepared to disrupt itself, and to chase people onto their devices with what will presumably be new kinds of advertisements inserted into our post-search, contextual streams of apps, cards, and whatever other interface elements are ultimately best suited to delivering these results.

Correction: An earlier version of this post identified Roi Carthy as CEO of Everything.me, rather than director of special projects.

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