Can Mobile Phones Think?

Almost six years ago, while working on a story for Business 2.0 magazine, I remember having a conversation with someone from Nokia (s NOK) about the possibility that one day mobile phones could think and adapt to our environment. For instance, what if the phone — using a location beacon — could sense if we were in the office and change the entire profile of the phone based on that information. What if it could turn off the Lady Gaga ringtone when you were at work? Or read your calendar and see that you were in a meeting and switch to silent mode?

At the time, the idea made perfect sense to me. After all, silicon trends were pointing to that future. Early research showed that chips for location-based services would be in every device, just as radios would keep us constantly connected to the Internet. Cheap sensors and cameras would make the phones see and sense the world around us. The phones could use speech technologies to take commands from us, thanks to powerful processors that would eventually power these mobile devices. The concept of the continuous humanization of mobile phones seemed a bit strange then, but now it is a distinct possibility.

Fast-forward to today, and that future imagined six years ago has started to take shape. Nokia has introduced a little app called Nokia Situations, which essentially transforms the phone based on the situation you are in. As the company described it on the Nokia Beta Apps blog, it is an experimental application which users can “use to define how you want your phone to behave in different situations, like ‘In a meeting,’ ‘Sleeping,’ or ‘Playing with the kids.'”  With the application running in the background, the device “automatically senses the situation you are in (e.g. based on time, day, location, available networks) and adapts to it according to your preferences.”

With this app you can do the following:

Change Ringtones, make the phone go silent or louder, turn vibrate on/off, and all the other profile settings.

Answer missed calls with SMS. Especially when you set your phone to silent, you can also make it reply to missed calls, from contacts in your phonebook, with a pre-defined SMS.

Save Power. Not using phone for a while, like when sleeping? Turn Bluetooth on/off or let your phone change to power-saving mode totally.

Change UI theme / Wallpaper. Want to make the phone look different in different situations? Change the Theme during free time vs. when you are at work.

Open a Web bookmark or application. Want to see weather forecast for the day when you wake up? Look at the calendar as first thing? Or open your favorite TV show discussion page at show time? Or perhaps change the Device Mode when at work? (Nokia Beta Labs)


I have tried it out on my N8 and I have to say, Nokia is onto something. I don’t want to get too excited – there is a lot of work still to be done and often, we have seen Nokia come up with breakthroughs but not capitalize on them. But this application represents context awareness, which becomes part of the core Nokia experience. Some of Nokia’s other recent applications, such as Nokia Feel and Nokia Bots, all point to a more personal mobile experience and that is what they should use to their advantage.

This kind of context awareness is going to become a big deal in the future, mostly because we are entering a world of infinite app options. As the numbers of applications starts to go up on our phones, context awareness could help solve the app-discovery dilemma as well. Most importantly, context awareness would essentially be key to us experiencing the Internet in a more meaningful way on our handsets.

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