THE battle lines are being drawn in the race to perfect the "next big thing" in mobile computing - a race many assumed had already been won by Apple.

But the race, as it turns out, has only just begun.

The "next big thing" is what US tech blogger and evangelist Robert Scoble calls the "age of context", which is the subject matter of a book he is writing with Forbes writer Shel Israel called The Age of Context: How It Will Change Your Life and Work.

That will be a follow-up to the duo's first collaboration, Naked Conversations, How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers.

In essence, the age of context is a brand-new age in which your mobile device, whether it be a smartphone, a tablet PC or something in between, delivers the information to you that you need, when you need it and where you need it, without you even having to ask for it.

Apple gave us an inkling of what was to come, when it unveiled its intelligent virtual personal assistant, Siri, with the iPhone 4S. When then Apple CEO, the late Steve Jobs, spoke about Siri in 2010, he said: "It's not a search company. We have no plans to go into the search business. We don't care about it. Other people do it well."

Until recently, there was nothing like Siri on the market. Samsung's S-Voice voice assistant, which became available with the otherwise excellent Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone, doesn't even come close.

But now there's Google Now, which ups the ante considerably, even though it is available only on a handful of devices running the Android Jelly Bean operating system. As devices running earlier versions of Android are updated, or new devices running Jelly Bean are released, it will become more widespread. And, by many accounts, it will definitely give Apple's Siri a run for its money.

It's too late for Jobs to acknowledge it now, but perhaps he shouldn't have been so hasty to dismiss search as having a role to play in the virtual assistant game because Google is about to show what is possible when you combine the two.

In addition to being able to ask Google Now questions and receive answers, in much the same way that Siri operates but with the benefit of Google's servers' speed, Google Now learns from your searches and your movements.

It knows where you live and the route you take home, so it can tell you how long it will take, whether there are any traffic jams along the way and, if so, whether there is a faster alternative route. Without you asking. If you are standing at a train station, it tells you when the next train will arrive. It wakes you up in the morning with the weather forecast for the day for wherever you are. If you are out of the country, it will keep you updated about the time at home and the exchange rate for the country you are in. If you have searched for sports results for your favourite team, it learns and automatically delivers the latest results when they become available. All without you asking.

There are quite a few smartphone apps that are showing the way of the "age of context" too. Highlight runs in the background and automatically lets you know when someone you might like to meet is within a certain range. Twist lets your friends, family and colleagues who are expecting you know how long it will be before you arrive and alerts them when you are almost there or if you are running late.

It may sound a little creepy, but it's the way of the future. And if there's anything that will make me give up my beloved iPhone 4S, it will be an Android device with Google Now.

ogradyk@bdfm.co.za