Four years ago, I outlined a vision for what I called "ubiquitous computing" and explained why it was important. To recap, ubiquitous computing, or digital ubiquity, was made up of three interconnecting trends.

  • The first was the growth in the number of end users with digital devices, including the PC but extending beyond it as well.
  • The second was end-user access to multiple connection points for wide-area, local and personal networks.
  • And the third was a host of digital services for business and personal use running on the devices.

All of that came to pass more or less as described, and with it came new challenges for IT departments. Support for multiple access points and a host of new devices to deal with were only the beginning. While most organisations have learned to deal with digital ubiquity (in some cases by trying to ban end-user device adoption), it's time to prepare for the next thing as we move beyond digital ubiquity to contextual flow.

Contextual flow
So, what is contextual flow? This notion builds on the digital ubiquity concepts but takes them much further. Contextual flow is marked by the seamless transition from one digital context to another, regardless of location or type of device used or the nature of the content or information being accessed. That might sound like a tall order, but users are going to expect this level of service - and expect it soon.

We're still living in a world where too much of the information we need is stored in silos. Meanwhile, people work and play in different places than they used to, and they want their information to flow freely and follow them as their individual contexts change.

Like digital ubiquity, contextual flow is also marked by three trends.

  • First, information is ubiquitous and flows seamlessly between locations.
  • Second, personal and business domains are intermingling, with a mobile bridge in the middle.
  • Third, a ubiquitous identity moves from domain to domain.

Imagine recording a TV show on a device in your home and then watching some of it before leaving for work. On the train, you pick up exactly where you left off and finish watching in time to talk about it over coffee with your colleagues. You still have some time to kill, so you quickly check your corporate mail and discover there's a memo that needs to be rewritten. You start outlining thoughts just as the train pulls in. When you get to your desk shortly thereafter, you pick up the memo where you left off, send it off and begin chatting with a co-worker about last night's TV episode.

This is a pretty basic scenario, but it illustrates just what's going to happen, if it isn't happening already. Using a variety of devices and services already on the market, that scenario is totally possible today.

The flow of this column
In fact, this column started life on a Treo, flowed from there seamlessly over to my laptop at home and was then sent to Computerworld over a wireless WAN while I had lunch in a cafe and CNBC streamed live in the background on my screen from a TiVo on my home network.

What does this mean for IT departments? Well, it's potentially disruptive from a support perspective, but like all good disruptions, it presents opportunities to get ahead of the curve and win points with end users. Welcome to the new world. Again.

Michael Gartenberg is vice president and research director for the personal technology & access and custom research groups at JupiterResearch in New York. This article appeared in Computerworld.