Context is king in mobile advertising, as InMobi snaps up Overlay Media

Mobile advertising may be one of those services that few consumers actually want, but it is arguably integral to funding the future of other mobile services. It’s also becoming an increasingly fascinating space to watch for its pace of technological development, particularly in terms of tracking user behavior as a way of establishing context, so as to better target those ads.

There are two spots of news today that show just how important the engineering side of mobile advertising is becoming. The first is the acquisition of a Bristol, England, company called Overlay Media by InMobi, one of the biggest players in mobile advertising. The takeover actually happened in the second half of last year – all staff moved over to InMobi and everyone’s apparently having a blast – but was only announced on Tuesday.

Making sense of sensor data

Overlay Media’s business is (or was, at least) not in mobile advertising. The company provides what it calls ‘the context engine’ to developers and mobile handset manufacturers, so they can build context into their services without needing to start from scratch. After all, modern smartphones are heaving with sensors, so there’s a lot that can be done here.

Ian Anderson, the founder of Overlay Media, came up with the idea while working on his PhD, which was all about mobile and wearable computing.

“We felt, looking at phones, that there was going to be a need for software that would allow people who didn’t have expertise in context to build it into their services,” he told me. “We were thinking we didn’t have the creativity to create apps, but we knew there would be a need to provide context data.”

How true. For the last few years, Overlay Media has been quietly working with handset manufacturers, who Anderson declined to name, on their medium-term research and development. And he predicts results soon.

“I do start to believe that context awareness will start to happen this year. It’s exciting to see these things we’ve been working on for some time start to appear in products.

“You will see a phased approach for context awareness — I don’t think the consumer is ready for what is technically possible. So you will see device behavior change [based on context]. You may see the shortcuts on your homescreen change when you’re at home or at work. Managing address books [may be improved] to quickly find people based on context.

“You’re going to see some very rich experiences down the line. If you’re walking down the road, the font size on your email client will become larger because you have less attention as you’re trying to avoid the lamppost.”

Thankfully, Anderson insisted that the InMobi acquisition will not kill off this collaboration. He wouldn’t go into how InMobi itself will be making use of the context engine, though.

New CEO at rival Madvertise

The other bit of news relates to one of InMobi’s key competitors, Germany’s Madvertise. There, chief executive Carsten Frien has decided to step down (the second major Berlin CEO resignation this week, following that of Delivery Hero chief Fabian Siegel), and his replacement is a proper tech veteran, Christof Wittig. (Frien will stay on the advisory board, by the way.)

Wittig was most recently managing director of Silicon Valley’s Kii Capital, and has founded several players such as Kii itself, a mobile backend-as-a-service outfit, and the open-source database firm db4objects.

As Frien put it in his valedictory statement: “I am very happy that we have been able to sign up a proven technology CEO with deep international experience to lead the next phase of growth for Madvertise.”

Mobile advertising really is an ‘arms race’. And, as with the actual arms industry, the product itself may not be to everyone’s liking, but the pace of development requires some pretty useful technological innovation.