Location-Based vs. Context-Aware

Russell and I have talked a lot about location-based services over the years, generally in an attempt to interject some reason and deflate some of the hype around them and move the discussion past the ubiquitous Starbucks example as the holy grail of LBS.

The biggest problem is that people confuse location with context. Location is just a part of the context of each individual user. If I’m near a Starbucks, am I just passing by, or am I going to get a coffee? If I’m at an airport, am I travelling, or am I picking up a friend? My location doesn’t indicate my personal context. To beat up the Starbucks example, yet again, maybe it’s 115 here in Las Vegas when I go by a Starbucks, hardly the time I’d like to have a nice hot cup of coffee — but maybe an iced tea would be good. But maybe I don’t like tea or coffee, or simply hate Starbucks. Anyhow, the idea is that there’s more defining me and my state of mind, my preferences, and my desires than my location. Just the simple fact that I’m near a Starbucks (especially given how many locations they have) doesn’t share any meaningful information about me.

So in light of the continued interest in LBS (not to mention the Starbucks scenario), it’s worth asking, would you rather have a location-based service, or a context-aware one? There are some interesting thoughts on context awareness from an industrial design perspective at Speedbird (via Small Surfaces).

Meanwhile, Google today announced the availability of location information from its Gears Geolocation API on some mobile devices, which some services are already using.

In some cases, such as mapping, there isn’t a great need for context-awareness instead of location, but in many LBS instances, being sensitive to context is much more important than simply location. Are there any good examples of context-sensitive services out there? And, of course, sensing context makes determining location look downright simple. How can developers and service providers best build context-sensitive apps and services?

Update: Check out Helen Keegan’s similar thoughts from last month. And, of course, ping her if you need help in this area as she’s the expert!

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