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From black box to contextual applications

by Eric Oldrin

Twenty five years ago, a man named Ithiel de Sola Pool proposed a concept he called convergence. In his book, "Technologies of Freedom," he predicted one device may someday deliver many services. Before long, people began dreaming about one single device that would provide every service, delivering all content straight to our living room and to the palm of our hand — the infamous black box.

It wasn't quite what Pool had in mind, but it's a dream that has influenced the production of cable boxes, entertainment centers, game consoles, DVD players, mobile phones, automobiles, and much more. It's also a dream that's proven to be completely wrong. As Henry Jenkins, author of "Convergence Culture," writes, "There will be no single black box that controls the flow of media into our homes."

According to Jenkins, the problem with a single device is that it "reduces media change to technological change and strips aside the cultural levels." It essentially overlooks the contextual circumstances of the content we consume. An obvious example is video on a phone, which has limitations that the television in our living room does not have. The screen is smaller; the bandwidth is narrower. But it also has advantages. A phone can utilize its location. It can also make phone calls. As Cheskin Research recently concluded, what we are seeing now is "different devices designed to suit your needs for accessing content depending on your context."

With this shift away from black box thinking and toward contextual thinking, we're starting to see the beginning of Pool's prophecy. Convergence is most powerful when devices have an awareness of capabilities and preferences, when they are part of an ecosystem of other devices, and consequentially, when the right device is used in the right situation.

To this end, Adobe has introduced a new class of application — the contextual application. In this article, I define and explore this type of application. I look at an excellent example from Atlantic Records, called Fanbase. And I explain how to get funding from Adobe's Open Screen Project to create your own. I hope this article helps you gain an understanding of contextual applications and shows you how they've helped manifest the true potential of convergence.

Contextual applications

Contextual applications provide a unified experience across multiple devices, while leveraging the unique capabilities and qualities of each. To do this, they have a built-in awareness of system information, network capacity, and user preferences. The same service is delivered in a variety of circumstances, accentuating the most important features available at the time. As a result, contextual applications are more powerful on each device and exponentially powerful within an overall ecosystem of devices.

Being aware of system information means that an application can transform from one device to another — adapting to interaction techniques such as multitouch, mouse, and keyboards; compensating for display size and shape; and taking advantage of special features like GPS or sensor data.

Network access and bandwidth can also limit or enhance an application's functionality. In addition to delivering content and logic, the network enables users to interact with one another and share content. Contextual applications can often overcome limitations by using local storage on a device or by dynamically modifying bandwidth requirements. Also, a network equipped with a consistent runtime environment enables devices to seamlessly install, upgrade, and provision applications and their capabilities.

Finally, an awareness of preferences allows applications to provide different experiences for different types of users. They can access content suited to the user's personal use patterns or interests, often leveraging data found on the network or stored locally. They can also transform their functionality to match the location or activities of a user. For example, an application might offer GPS features when a user is using a mobile device.

Fanbase

Now let's take a look at Fanbase, a contextual application that illustrates the types of awareness we've defined. It's a service from Atlantic Records that aggregates the latest information about Atlantic artists and makes it easily accessible through one application on many devices. It features an audio player, a chat room, and a continuous feed of both official and unofficial content, including set lists, fan photos, amateur video clips, and more.

Already available as a desktop and mobile application, Atlantic plans to extend a unified Fanbase experience to many devices, from bonus-featured CDs to automobile touch screens. Within each context, Fanbase is aware of system information, network capabilities, and user preferences — transforming to match the specific advantages and limitations of each device. We spoke with Eric Snowden, senior creative director and director of product development for Atlantic Records, about the company’s plans to extend Fanbase to more devices.

"We took a look at what we're doing on the application side," says Snowden. "And we realized they're all part of the same experience. This should really be one product." So, Atlantic began considering other ways to experience Fanbase — through the television, on a touch screen, in a social network, or even in a car. Snowden’s team was able to quickly build prototypes and start experimenting.

"We realized there were these different devices that were all using Adobe Flash Lite, and we found that most of the code was reusable across these different screens," notes Snowden. "TV, phone, touch screen, car devices — 85% of the application automatically worked from a programming perspective. It was really a eureka moment for us." This extensibility of code allowed Atlantic to focus its efforts on designing a unified experience and on building additional features that leverage the unique context of each device.

"What makes sense on a desktop, on a phone, or in a car is different. The context is different," Snowden explains. Fanbase is aware of system, network, and user context within each device. It transforms to meet limitations and to accentuate capabilities.

Visual elements, like interface design, are simplified to respect system limitations such as smaller screens. "In certain contexts, everything needs to be one layer deep because of the device," says Snowden. Media-rich features like video are truncated for a mobile device within limited network connectivity and highlighted on a television. Finally, Fanbase features themselves transform to match user preferences. For Snowden, reacting to the unique user context holds some of the most exciting opportunities.

"Sometimes I'm in front of my TV, and I'm vacuuming," Snowden continues, "So, maybe I've got the visualizer on a music track. With my cell phone, chances are I have it in my hand, so I'm more interactive. Or I have kids in the back seat of my car. What do they want from our application?" Contextual applications mean planning for these use cases and, more importantly, according to Snowden, how they all can be connected.

For Atlantic, Fanbase has two simple missions — let fans stay connected to the artists no matter where they are and create a hub of everything about that artist. Contextual applications have made that mission possible by providing a unified experience across multiple systems and devices. As Snowden notes, "This is the promise of what Adobe is trying to do. We're starting to see it coalesce into something real."

In a larger sense, we may even be seeing Ithiel de Sola Pool's vision coalesce as well. Not through one all-purpose black box but through many boxes, we're seeing a convergence of content and services in ways Pool hardly imagined.

Open Screen Project

So, how can you build a contextual application? The Open Screen Project is a $10 million market development fund offering grants to developers to accelerate the creation of contextual applications. According to Adobe, "The fund is seeking applications in the following focus areas: entertainment, business, social networking, productivity, gaming, travel, multimedia, health, finance, weather, sports, news, education, and more."

Obviously, there's a lot of room for innovation and experimentation. Past funded projects have included real estate mobile applications, virtual pianos, personal media publishers, and a guide to the annual Roskilde music festival. According to Maxim Antinori from Max Media Corp., "The convergence of support for Adobe Flash Player across many platforms, coupled with the improvements in distribution on the mobile platform in particular, make Flash the best choice for developing applications that need to function across a wide range of devices."

Adobe is actively accepting proposals. So if the idea of defining a new class of application and manifesting the history of convergence appeals to you — do it.

To learn more about the Open Screen Project and the $10 million fund, visit www.openscreenproject.org.

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Eric Oldrin is Executive Producer / General Manager at Digital Kitchen.