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Context-Aware Adaptive Software

Adaptive software is the largely unfulfilled promise of mobile technology. However, a new platform developed by European researchers promises to finally deliver software that reconfigures itself depending on the context.

Adaptive software — software that can configure itself automatically to deliver the maximum functionality for a given context — is finally coming. One of the long-promised fruits of the mobile technology tree, adaptation has proven a late bloomer, in large part due to the number of extremely tough problems that dog the idea.

For starters, there are thousands of different potential devices, from mobile phones to media players to computers. Added to that are the even vaster number of applications.

“The MUSIC project wanted to create a platform for adaptive applications that could work on any device and with any software,” said Geir Horn, researcher with SINTEF in Norway and coordinator of the project, “because people often want software to work differently in different contexts.”

For example, most e-mail software downloads each e-mail with all attachments in the order they were received. On a slow Internet connection, this can mean waiting an hour or more to retrieve all the e-mails a user has received, and the connection could even be lost before all the files have been downloaded.

But e-mail clients have a "slow connection" setting that lets users download just the basic information — the subject, the sender, and the size of the file — and it can be very useful when using roaming data feeds or when the bandwidth is limited.

More than download options can be optimized for particular contexts. Encryption, too, can be adjusted for use in the safety of a firewall-protected office or the potentially more-vulnerable mobile state when on the move.

Functions like these are typically buried behind obscure menu items and several dialogue boxes, and there are literally hundreds of possible options for all the different software on one device, and even more options for other devices. Users would quickly become overwhelmed if they have to change settings manually.

“Of course, the e-mail software developers could write their software so that it adapts when the Internet connection is slow, or when the user is moving, or when the user is in a particular location, but there are possibly hundreds of different situations that they would need to think of, and it quickly gets prohibitively expensive,” said Horn. “And that is just for one application.”

MUSIC handles all these issues.

MUSIC takes account of a user’s location, whether it is at home, the office, in a car, or on public transport. It notes the device in use, whether a mobile phone, netbook, or desktop; and it is aware of dozens of other variables, from the strength of the Internet connection to the time of day, from light levels to the condition of the battery.

By combining all this information, the MUSIC middleware can make a very good guess of the users’ context, what the user will want to do at a particular time, in a specific location with a given device.

The MUSIC platform does not need to be configured by the user, it derives its possible settings from the high-level behavior descriptions that are part of most software developed today. High-level behaviors describe functions such as displaying SMS messages via text or using audio.

These descriptions tell the MUSIC software what settings can be altered, and MUSIC then simply uses the most appropriate settings for a given context. In the SMS example, it would render the message in text when the user is in a restaurant, but render it in audio when he or she is in a car.

“The biggest challenge that the MUSIC consortium faced was trying to create software that would install on any device, whether it is a mobile phone, PDA, netbook, or server,” Horn said. “In the end, we decided to use Java, which we thought was the most appropriate cross-platform development language.”

The developers also used a plug-in paradigm so the software can be extended in useful ways. For example, any software can take advantage of MUSIC functionality simply by developing a plug-in for the platform. Similarly, the platform can expand its functionality via plug-ins, too.

So while the base MUSIC configuration may take account of location, via GPS, and time, via the device clock, plug-ins could expand the base configuration to take advantage of other sensors, such as a compass, accelerometer, or light meter.

The MUSIC project achieved all its design goals and has created a robust prototype platform. The software is designated open source and is freely available. There is a fledgling development community coalescing around the platform and, while there is no formal commercialization plan as such, it is very likely that MUSIC will slowly, almost surreptitiously, become part of the mobile landscape.

That is because the platform is tiny, just a few hundred kilobytes in its base configuration. “So if a company wants to offer services that depend on MUSIC, they can just bundle the software with the service,” Horn said

The MUSIC project received funding from the ICT strand of the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research.

Source: ICT Results

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