What does Context Aware Computing mean?

In the last months Context Aware Computing became a more and more frequently used term in the IT press. A few weeks ago, Gartner mentioned Context Aware Computing as one of their Top 10 Technology Trends for 2012. [1]

An article in CIO Online magazine describes Context Aware Computing as the following: “According to Gartner, context-aware computing uses information about an end user’s or object’s environment, activities, connections and preferences to improve the quality of interaction with that end user or object. A contextually aware system anticipates the user’s needs and proactively serves up the most appropriate and customized content, product or service.” [2]

In their 2012 trend listing, Gartner refers to the continually increasing relevance of Context Aware Computing for the consumer business. But, especially in the B2B business, the opportunities of context-sensitive technologies are nearly unlimited. Context-based working becomes a relevant economic factor: time-consuming search can be decreased, information is provided in the current context of a task and selective perception is reduced.

The German newspaper “Handelsblatt” covered the topic “cognition of information and information overload” in different issues. Within the November issue[3] it states that “significant economic consequences can result from the forgetfulness and selective perception of humans. Within the September[4]  issue it illustrates that „… an Office worker may concentrate on one task for eleven minutes. If he gets interrupted by a call or an e-mail for about 25 minutes, then afterwards he needs eleven minutes to get up to speed again with the original task.”

Töpfer and Yogeshwar[5] quote Jonas: „When too many perceptions, thoughts, opinions or intentions are overwhelming us, we use a unique method to sort these impressions. Science names it ‚cognitive dissonance‘. “

Combionic is looking at those problems now for quite some time. Sternemann[6] wrote: „The current situation is characterized by stand-alone solutions; additional semantic problems are caused by the use of different terms or variants for the same object by different users. Therefore the expenditure of time increases, which also means an increase of information costs. At the same time, important information is probably not provided or not on time, which influences the quality of decision making in a negative way, because the value of information decreases.“

Even Zuboff[7] claimed with his neologism „Informate“, that new information structures must go beyond the gathering of information only. Employees need to have access to relevant information to make the right decisions and take the right actions. It is important to know, which information needs to be available in which way and when. These questions can only be answered with appropriate access to knowledge, information and the respective data storage systems.

In one of our customer projects with the State of Hessen in Germany, the Microsoft concept “Government Workplace Modernization” was implemented. It follows the principle of context-based access to specialized applications directly from Microsoft Office. To assess the real potential of this concept, the German Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO was involved in a pilot and conducted a scientific research study (see study of Fraunhofer Institute) that tracked activities involved in a given administrative process. Result: The net processing time has been reduced by two-thirds and the quality (through the validity of data) has improved at the same time. [8]

Context Aware Computing is often confused with Location Aware Computing. But, from our point of view, this wouldn´t go far enough, because even though the location is an interesting context information, it isn´t relevant for every application scenario. At which sales stage is the opportunity with the customer I´m talking to? Which communication tools do I have at hand and how does my customer prefer to be contacted. Which devices is my customer using to communicate with me?

IT architects are facing enormous challenges due to the infinite dimensional “context space”. Holistic approaches and new architectural paradigms help solving those challenges. „In the past, topics like multi-layer architectures or SOA addressed problems of scalability and manageability. The user has only been a statistic factor. At most clustered in user groups or profiles – in the end without any own individuality. If we want to develop real “context aware” solutions, we have to switch the viewpoint completely and put the individual at the center of a context space (local- and timewise). The human is the center.” says Combionic CTO Dr. Stefan Zimmermann. Furthermore he notes: „Therefore it´s necessary to get a new understanding of the architectures, which connect devices, apps and the cloud on a contextual basis. Fortunately supporting technologies already exist and thanks to cloud computing and “smart devices”, software can be developed much more context aware than ever before.”[9]

The challenge is to find always the right information at the right time and as fast as possible. This is getting clearer for Public Sector organizations as well as for every other industry organization. To win this challenge by using modern information technology can result in a significant competitive advantage.


[1] See Gartner: the Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2012, CIO Online, http://www.cio.com/article/692031/Gartner_the_Top_10_Strategic_Technology_Trends_for_2012?source=itwartcio, access on November 8 2011.

[2] Gartner: the Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2012, CIO Online, http://www.cio.com/article/692031/Gartner_the_Top_10_Strategic_Technology_Trends_for_2012?page=2&taxonomyId=3178, access on November 8 2011.

[3] See Tönnesmann, Jens: Wirtschaftswissenschaften – Die Ökonomie der Zeit; Handelsblatt Nr. 225 from November 21 2011, Page 20.

[4] Series of articles: Die Ökonomie der Zeit“ – Die Zeitvernichtungsmaschine; Handelsblatt Nr. 190 from September 20 2011/ October 2 2011, Page 77.

[5] Klaus Töpfer, Ranga Yogeshwar: Unsere Zukunft – Ein Gespräch über die Welt nach Fukushima; Verlag C.H.Beck oHG, Munich 2011; Page 58.

[6] Karl-Heinz Sternemann: Team-Informationssystem – Beitrag zur Informations- und Wissensbereitstellung in dezentralen Strukturen; in: Kühnle (Herausgeber): Innovative Produktionsforschung Band 5; Gesellschaft für innovative Systeme mbH, Magdeburg, 2000, Page 13ff.

[7] Zuboff, S.: In the Age of the Smart Machine. The Future of Work and Power.; 1. Edition; 1988.

[8] See Wirtschaftlichkeit und Interoperabilität des ‚Modernen Verwaltungsarbeitsplatz‛ (MVAP) an Musterprozessen im Arbeitsschutz Wiesbaden Fraunhofer Instituts, Fraunhofer Institut für offene Kommunikationssysteme und Fraunhofer Institut für Arbeitswirtschaft und Organisation, 2009.

[9] Zimmermann, Stefan Dr., Quote from January 20 2012.