Imagining the post-app world of the ‘device mesh’

Right now, we are all aware that each of us sits at the centre of an expanding fabric of devices, data, services and other

people that are digitally connected. But the services and data we use on our devices are mainly tethered to individual apps. We are about to enter a ‘post-app’ world of continuous experiences, where all these devices and endpoints will start to fully cooperate with each other to create one fluid, seamless experience centred around the individual.

This ‘device mesh’ will soon facilitate what Gartner calls an ‘ambient user experience’ – the analyst firm’s top strategic technology for 2016 and beyond. This post-app vision is about to become a ubiquitous element of everyday life, a familiar element of the Internet of Things for consumers and the new reality for IT. It will, says Gartner, radically upgrade and redefine the customer experience, but what exactly will this ‘ambient user experience’ look like?

As Gartner analyst Brian Burke explains, it’s not simply about adding exponentially more endpoints or more data into networks – that will happen anyway. The next step is refining how those smartphones, fitness trackers, cars, cameras, appliances, homes and more connect with each other to access apps and information and interact with the people, communities, businesses and organisations at the centre of it all.

‘When we think about devices today, we probably think about a mobile phone, perhaps a tablet, a laptop, or throw in a fitness tracker – the personal devices people are carrying around with them,’ says Burke.

‘This is a device-centric view of the world. What the ‘device mesh’ changes is that we need to start thinking about mobile as people- centric and tied to the devices that are changing around the user all the time, some of which they own and some they don’t. People may have one set of devices while in the office, and others while in the gym, shopping or at home. We have to start to think about how the devices will interact with users in a way that will provide meaning within their context.’

In the current model, when organisations develop apps they create different ones for mobile, for laptops and for smart watches. But a post-app world will see a shift towards organisations providing people with the services they require within the context of where they are, using the capabilities of the devices they have available to them.

Such a system will be built around remembering the individual user’s history and preferences and predicting their needs, passing the data on to whichever is the appropriate device to hand as an individual moves through everyday life.

> See also: How the ‘device mesh’ will transform the worlds of employee benefits and HR

One great early example developing now is South African insurance company Discovery’s ‘Vitality’ programme. The firm is partnering with many different organisations to collect information about a user’s ealth choices.

When a user goes to the supermarket, for instance, data from the mobile payment system or loyalty card system is collected on whether they buy health foods or less healthy choices. Partnering with organisations like Weight Watchers, the Vitality programme monitors how often a user works out at the gym, which machines they plugged into and the statistics from their workout.

Retail scanners, gym machines, weighing scales and gym turnstiles that the user interacts with become part of their ‘personal architecture’, feeding information back to the user to motivate them to make healthier lifestyle choices.

Such a system brings together devices that we are actively using, plus ones that we may not be conscious of interacting with, to make up the mesh of devices that constantly change with context over time, fluidly exchanging information.

Brave new world

When dealing with their customers, organisations need to rethink the services they are providing and the interaction model to provide this continuous user experience.

‘It’s not going to happen today,’ says Burke, ‘but we are moving towards it. Today we can start to think about how we can potentially engage people in an appropriate way as they move through the mesh of devices. In basic terms, you may want to think about providing

customers with particular offers that are available that day when they enter a store. That requires you to know that your customer arrived in-store and what your customer has bought, and implies a number of devices working together to provide that.’

While today the glut of devices available to us is increasingly connected to back-end systems through various networks, they often operate too much in isolation for such a radical merging of physical and virtual worlds to occur.

Right now the limitations are often not with the devices themselves, but within the ecosystem that organisations are working with: Apple has provided a service called ‘Continuity’ where you can create part of an email or SMS on one device and complete it on another using something called ‘hand off’, providing services across devices within the context of what the user has available to them.

Samsung has a similar solution called Samsung Flow in an effort to link its devices together more seamlessly. But so far they are only within the one ecosystem.

‘This is a starting point,’ says Burke, ‘but what we envision is that we will have a broader set of devices that spans multiple vendor ecosystems, actively working together to provide the content that people require within the context of what’s available to them and where they are and what they are doing at the time. It’s a different way of thinking about how to deliver services as opposed to how to deliver apps, and combining those devices to deliver those services effectively.’

As the number of devices grows, the challenge will be for vendors and ecosystem managers to work together in closer cooperation to complete the picture of device interaction.

‘The major hurdle,’ says Burke, ‘is thinking about how we are designing solutions and services that are going to leverage the full capabilities of all the devices people have around them. And that’s not the way we are delivering those capabilities today.’

Our robot friends

Gartner analysts predict that in the next five to ten years, enterprises will begin to look at leveraging services that span multiple apps across multiple devices. Beyond 2020, we enter a post-app world where flexible apps are able to operate dynamically across devices.

A crucial element in this will be the ‘virtual private assistants’ and other AI technologies that will act as our guides to help us navigate this new world.

Gartner says that by 2020 nearly half of our mobile interactions will be done through virtual personal assistants, like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Alphabet’s Google Now. By 2020, say experts, Microsoft’s strategy will be centred around Cortana rather than Windows, as the burgeoning AI evolves into the cross-platform face of Microsoft.

It will redefine productivity by understanding the user, proactively helping them and managing integrated apps across devices.

‘AI will have a huge role,’ says Burke. ‘A bit into the future, as assistants like Siri, Cortana and Google Now get smarter, they will actually provide a primary interface between user and apps, managing the apps in the back-end in a seamless way.’ Ultimately, these personal assistants will need to exist in the cloud, able to interact with the user independent of the device or app they are using.

One possible future scenario would be a virtual assistant that schedules a plane ticket for its user after checking the trip schedule in their calendar, along with previous information from their emails and financial information regarding previous bookings.

‘It would already know my preferences from previous flights – that I like an aisle seat, that I collect points, and so on – and it will find the appropriate airline and propose the best flight for me,’ says Burke.

Reaching its full potential, device mesh would offer one point of contact across all devices, allowing a single strand of working and communications. Internally within organisations, IT departments will be able to offer an equal, uniform service to all their employees, regardless of their device.

> See also: How to create a wearable tech network to drive the business value of data

The merging of personal and professional, physical and virtual will always be tumultuous issues, but it will offer huge opportunities for forward-thinking enterprises.

Ultimately, argues Burke, the ubiquity of these services will render the problems around BYOD completely irrelevant. Organisations will be moving towards more consumer-oriented services, working with vendors to provide that ‘ambient user experience’ for employees.

‘The question now around if we are going to allow employees to use their own devices and even their own apps – we frankly need to get over it,’ says Burke. ‘In five years’ time, the answer will be absolutely yes.

‘We need to start figuring out how to make that happen – moving towards leveraging and enabling employees to use those devices that they have available to them, to leverage those personal devices with corporate services that work fluidly across app and device.’

Chloe Green

Copywriter, content marketer, and journalist with 7+ years' experience including 4 in B2B technology.

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