Contextually Aware is Smart

Posted on 12/14/2010

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Nokia Beta Labs recently released an experimental app, Nokia Situations, that brings context awareness to your device. So what exactly is context awareness? From the Beta Labs blog itself, they say “you can manually define situations…and define how you want the device to act.  With the application running in the background, your device automatically senses the situation you are in and adapts to it according to your preferences“, which I think is as apt a description as any. I’m sure you can imagine this situation, you have a meeting with the big boss and in the middle of you get a a phone call. Cue having to shuffle around, find your phone, kill the phone call, put the phone on silent all the while apologizing profusely. This has happened to me countless times, and it’s damn embarrassing. And it can happen anywhere, at the cinema, doctors appointments, . Having a contextually aware device can be a saving grace, especially for someone like me who is always looking for ways to get more organised.

So how exactly does it work? Starting up Nokia Situations brings up a list of your phone profiles. You can edit them here, change ringtones, message tones etc. The important thing to look out for is the ‘enable automation’ option. Clicking on this brings up a set of ‘conditions’ that be customised; time, weekday, calendar, gps location, network location and bluetooth device. Going through them all, time allows you to define a specific time during the day to activate a profile. So if you have an afternoon nap from 14:00-15:00 you might enable automation of the silent profile. The weekday condition allows you to select a day or a combination of days. The calendar function is one that interests me, the application will scan you phone’s calendar and invoke a selected profile. GPS Location is another useful condition, if you need to say switch to offline mode in your place of work. The bluetooth and newtork conditions cover connectivty options, the bluetooth option for example allowing you to pair automatically with another bluetooth enabled device. Over and above acting as a profile switcher, Situations has some additional settings that make your phone smarter. You can for example set your phone to respond to missed calls via an sms, useful when in a meeting and you can’t take a call. You can launch specific applications, web pages, or toggle bluetooth on/off.

So on paper this seems like a great idea albeit with the caveat that this app is not even in beta yet, listed as an experimental app. In practice despite the wealth of features, I didn’t find it very useful. To give you an example, two Fridays ago, we had our Christmas lunch here at work but I also had a meeting arranged in the morning. So I enabled automation of my meeting profile, to be activated when Situations detects a calendar event. The problem is however there is no way to filter what events are detected. A birthday party and an office are two different contexts. So the phone duly switched to the ‘meeting’ profile for my 10:00 meeting for half an hour and switched back to ‘general’. I did however miss a couple of calls and messages during the lunch as this was also saved as a calendar entry and the phone switched back to meeting. I had to manually disable automation. Another problem that I found was that each profile can only be assigned one condition. So if I wanted to use the meeting profile for calendar entries and for GPS locations (like at the cinema for example), the only way to do this is to create a custom profile identical to ‘meeting’ and automate that with a single GPS location. Luckily I have no need for many contexts but even for my limited needs, Nokia Situations is currently wholly inadequate.

This brings me to an application I found on Ovi Store, Smartphoneware’s Best Profiles (R25) . Best Profiles has more limited contexts compared to Situations, schedule, calendar, GSM locations, and charging. What is impressive however is the flexibility that the app allows you when it comes to managing switching between your profiles. First, each profile can have multiple contexts attached to it. To me this seems like such an obvious addition that I’m alarmed Situations is missing this. Onto each context, schedule is great if your days are very predictable. You juts set the times and the app takes care of the rest. The calendar contexts allows you to use keywords in calendar entries to switch profiles which is handy. Furthermore if something just comes up, you have the option to activate a profile once off for a specified period of time. I have yet to use the GSM location and charging context, and would have preferred a GPS context instead, and I don’t see the point in changing the profile whilst charging the phone.  Best Profiles does have deeper settings, like opening and closing apps, but doesn’t allow you to respond to missed calls via SMS. However the features that it does have are very well thought out and implemented.

I have found Best Profiles to be simpler, yet more flexible and more powerful than Situations and it is reasonably priced. I am sure that with time though as Beta Labs gets more feedback, Situations can grow to be a powerful application. And should it remain free could be the app of choice but for now I will stick with Best Profiles.

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