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Building The Unobtrusive Web

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These are the years before we built the unobtrusive web.

I remember my first mobile phone. It had a stick-up aerial, a little LCD screen and big rubbery keys. I was in a pub with a friend of mine and my pocket started ringing. I pulled my phone out, and my friend gave me a withering look. He said, "Are you telling me you'd prefer to talk to someone who isn't actually here?"

How will we look back at the current phase in our tech evolution? We may see it as the time we were confused about what's important in our immediate environment. Walking around a busy city, we see thousands of people at risk of bumping into things as they peer at online maps, messages and articles. Go to a gig, and we see hundreds of people filming and viewing it through the camera on their phones. Watch people socialise, and they happily ignore the person they are with in order to interact virtually, via the illuminated rectangle in the palm of their hand.

Thanks to mobile data, the Internet is almost everywhere. But the devices we use are almost as fiddly as they are portable. They're very compelling, but our phones are difficult and demanding little things to deal with. We listen for their call, we squint at them, we poke at them, and we hunch over them with a fervor hitherto unknown to our spinal chords.

This concentrated intensity and distraction is beginning to stoke the next Internet revolution. We are building the unobtrusive web.

Better-fitted form factors

Technology evolves much like biology. Experimentation and innovation drive change. Some new features fail and some new features fly. In this way each new generation can incrementally improve on the previous, and the new features that work become standard issue: cameras, accelerometers, GPS, retina displays. Unlike biology, there is thankfully no need for a sexual process between manufacturers. They can just copy the best new stuff from one another. Within legal limits.

Device form factors settle down to a better and better fit with the user. Phones are toughened to withstand normal wear and tear, and become more suited to the nuances of use in the palm of your hand. Lightweight, paperback-sized tablets get tucked neatly into handbags. And laptops have stopped looking like they're military issue. The market has matured and the primary design focus is on us, not technology for its own sake.

Context-aware content

As the hardware becomes more ergonomic, the way devices are used becomes more polarized and more clear. Your mobile phone is likely to get used out and about, while your tablet may be preferred for a longer session on the web.

Software developers can make more accurate presumptions about the context in which their software will be used. They not only ensure the content they publish is well fitted to the size of screen you are using, but they also configure the interface and the features of their software around your likely needs.

This means that content can be more accurately tailored to its context. The Internet becomes populated with content that literally knows its place.

Pre-emptive intelligence

Better-fitted form factors plus context-aware content enables greater and greater pre-emptive intelligence. That is, we're starting to make software that works out what you want to know without needing to be told.

For a surprising amount of tasks, all the inputs your computer requires can be derived from previously gathered information plus awareness of your immediate context. If you're a mile away from your next meeting which starts in fifteen minutes, then your mobile phone knows that now is a good time to start walking.

Google Now is an advance sortie into this territory, showing us an Internet that asks less questions to provide more answers.

The unobtrusive web

The unobtrusive web is the Internet fitted more discreetly and adeptly into human experience. It's always there, it's more helpful than ever, and it works hard to understand your needs and not to get in the way. Imagine that: an even more helpful Internet that doesn't constantly demand your attention. The onus will be on it to serve us as smartly as Jeeves served Wooster.

Part of the aim of the unobtrusive web will be to reduce the time we spend tending our tiny screens.

In many contexts, voice input is quicker and easier than translating our thoughts into proddings and swipings at a keyboard. Similarly, audio responses could be hugely improved from what we currently expect. We routinely accept and respond to audio notifications that dumbly interrupt us, whatever we are doing. Any good butler knows to listen first before galumphing into the drawing room with the latest junk mail. Our devices are clever enough to respond to context and content, and to change how we are notified accordingly.

Different device form factors are starting to work collaboratively to create an even smarter system for serving and pre-empting our needs. My Bluetooth watch buzzes when I receive a phone call. It's less intrusive than a ring tone and for me it's more noticeable too, since the watch is strapped to my wrist. Although this makes me more connected to the web, it also encourages me to check my phone less often.

As devices are more intelligently fitted around our needs, we can enjoy the benefits of the unobtrusive web. We are freed up from unwelcome interruptions, we grapple less with our gadgets, we spend less time peering at poorly formatted content, and we don't have to spell out what we need. Instead - hopefully - we will be able to focus on enjoying what's happening around us.

Or at least, that option will be more readily available.