Contextual Runtimes - Take 2

We are embracing context in ever more applications today, but was that ultimately inevitable?

I recently read a fantastic post on Fred Wilson’s blog (@fredwilson) that referenced a must-read by Benedict Evans on the web to mobile transition. Ben’s post talks about some of the current trends and shifts in the industry as it matures from revolving around the web to realizing that mobile is becoming ubiquitous.

The part that really got me thinking was when Ben and Fred talk about the following:

Really, we’re looking for a new run-time – a new way, after the web and native apps, to build services. That might be Siri or Now or messaging or maps or notifications or something else again. But the underlying aim is to construct a new search and discovery model – a new way, different to the web or app stores, to get users.

The word run-time here might seem a bit confusing, I was thrown off by it at first. The reason being that I am used to seeing it in a completely different context. Ben is using the word run-time to mean something more along the lines of an environment. The run-time is analogous to a wind-tunnel, where all sorts of wing designs or shapes are tested and perfected.

Fred takes this idea a step beyond, talking about the fact that we don’t just need one run-time, but there will be several simultaneous run-times:

I agree with Ben but I think there won’t be one runtime in the mobile era. I think what is emerging is multiple runtimes depending on the context – “contextual runtimes.”

If I’m building a lunchtime meal delivery service for tech startups, that’s a Slack bot.

If I’m building a ridesharing service, that’s going to run in Google Maps and Apple Maps.

If I’m building a “how do I look” fashion advisor service, that’s going to run in Siri or Google Now.

If I’m building an “NBA dashboard app”, that is mostly going to run on the mobile notifications rails.

This really got me thinking and it brings us to the central question that I want to ask in this post: With the evolution of technology, major applications will become rooted in our lives, eventually turning into the run-times that Ben and Fred talked about. So was this progression inevitable?

In this post series, starting 2016, I am much more interested in asking questions than providing answers. So let me explain what I mean by inevitable and why that matters at all. With the Internet becoming central to our lives, it is also generating tons of data. In a previous post I talked about how this data being generated is restructuring the world around it. A consequence of this restructuring is the creation of data-hubs that produce tons of data. To filter them or organize them, we create aggregators, Reddit is a perfect example of this scenario. Following this trajectory of developments, some applications will take over our lives and Fred gave several examples quoted above. I’m interested in asking the question of what other alternative futures could be viable for our technologically advanced society. An interesting take on this topic is the book Mirror Worlds by David Gelernter. The main thesis of the book is that we would eventually create simulation engines that replicate our world almost perfectly. A huge advantage is that having a simulation engine allows us to play it forward and backwards in time, and observing different behaviours from the agents interacting within it.

Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean

The contextual run-times are interesting for another important reason: They provide us with leads to explore more “things” in our world. Vaguely put, the amount of stuff in around us is increasing very fast, and one way of keeping up with interesting new “things” is to look at what our peers are doing. Social interactions are driving much of the discovery, and in the future this will become ever more important. It is interesting to think that as we have more and more means for creating data, we also end up creating aggregators for data. These mega-constructs then become run-times which other applications can use and push further into the future. One day in the future, the run-times and the applications that run on them will merge together in intricate ways creating the simulation engines that Gelernter talks about.

Is this the only fate of a technologically advanced society? This question is just as hard to answer, as it is to ask. What does it even mean to think about alternatives? In this linear approach, any alternatives would imply that the data-explosion necessary for growth didn’t happen. The only characteristic of our data exposing is that it was omni-directional, all sorts of “things” came to the Internet. One possible future of that dataclysm is the IoT explosion that is about to follow. Even more “things” will come online and become connected and as the individual components become better and better, we will surely have mega-structures that power our society from the most basic services such as clean water and electricity to the largest ones such as managing our banks more effectively.

Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking)

One last idea to think about is the lead-generation from our context. I’m not using the term “leads” in the traditional sense, here leads just mean ideas in your head that you can choose to explore later. These leads are similar to deep-linking on a Wikipedia page where one link leads to another and then to another. Social media along with the apps and tools that we use generate a lot of new leads. Contextual run-times will generate an enormous amount of leads, most of which we can’t keep up with. Keeping up with what’s new and what’s happening around us will largely depend on social discovery and particularly on the ideas that the crowds find more interesting.

Thinking about alternatives forces us to think about possibilities that may not match up together. Answering some of the questions I posed might allow you to start thinking about new ideas that connect people and places in ways that are necessary in this age of information overflow. I think a great example of why we would be using context and why we need it is Humin. It is the first app that organizes contacts on your phone based on the context in which you met them. The organization is really the key differentiation, but more importantly, this app shows us a new generation of mobile applications in the age of context.

How would our brains adapt and evolve to this age of context? Or is context a property inherent to our brains? In that case, we wouldn’t be moving into an age of context, but rather, technology is catching up to the way we naturally think. A very interesting read on this topic is by Daniel Levitin:

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

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