Sometimes major technology trends happen without us really noticing. That’s certainly the case with a concept that’s been called portable digital identities or digital personas. Essentially, these terms refer to the practice of accessing a consistent set of data and services across a variety of devices. It’s something we all do—especially with the growing range of different computing devices and cloud-based services we now all have access to—but it isn’t something that most people consciously set out to achieve. It just happens without us even really thinking about it.
At a basic level, for example, we all now expect to have a synchronized email inbox across all our devices. But that wasn’t always the case. Though it may be easy to forget, there was a time when even if you read an email on one device, it didn’t show up as read in the email application on a different device, or a response you wrote on one device didn’t automatically appear on other devices you might have used.
We’ve moved well beyond that basic level of email organization now, of course. We have synchronized services for everything from a list of the movies and TV shows we’ve watched on a service like Netflix across smart TVs, PCs, and smartphones, to all the recent rides we’ve taken with companies like Lyft, to a consistent list of browser favorites across operating systems, browsers, and devices. Individually, these are all nice features to have, and they make using the services or applications that support them much easier. Collectively, however, they start to paint the bigger picture of a consistent digital identity that we are each building, without a conscious effort on our part.
Once you recognize this portable digital identity concept and start to think about what the implications of this development are, you quickly realize that there are a lot of very interesting new possibilities, particularly in terms of how digital personas and shared computing experiences can be further enhanced. One of the first, and most obvious, extensions is to our actual identity—linking all our various accounts and services to who we actually are. While that may sound odd, remember that in this era of account spoofing, take-overs, and other hacking efforts, it’s not always clear that any particular account is owned by you. If, however, you could develop methods that more clearly tie you with your digital persona—such as through biometric authentication, which organizations like the FIDO Alliance are working on, or linking it to the unique SIM card (or eSIM) in your mobile phone, as startup Averon has started to do—then your physical and digital identity could start to be linked in a more definitive way.
Cloud-based storage services such as OneDrive, iCloud, Google Drive, Box, and OneBox are also critical enablers for this device independent world of digital personas. While cloud-based backup is certainly an extremely important feature, the real beauty of these services is the ability to let you access all your data easily across all your devices. This, in turn, lets you jump across different devices, depending on what happens to be the best choice for a given situation (or what you happen to have access to at a given time). The tech industry hasn’t completely resolved all the situations, or updated all the applications necessary to enable completely seamless data sharing across everything, but tremendous progress is being made all the time.
Another intriguing opportunity to expand on our digital identity is to extend our computing experiences across the range of physical devices we own. Take, for example, the possibility of linking and or extending the screen of one device onto another. Recently, for example, we’ve started to see applications like Microsoft’s Your Phone app, or the more complete Dell Mobile Connect, provide you with the ability to view and control content from your mobile phone on your PC. The idea is to link the physical experience of using a particular device with your other devices, so that they start to intentionally function as a single, larger system. This is only possible with a consistent set of data services, but once it’s there, the possibilities for leveraging it become very intriguing.
The next step I’m hoping to see across the device sharing spectrum is the ability to use multiple devices together in an even more cooperative way. Imagine, for example, the ability to essentially “throw” the content from your phone screen onto a tablet or other nearby larger screen device with a simple gesture, or even automatically. In business meetings and conference room environments, we’re starting to see some of these capabilities now, but more work has to be done to make it easier for consumers. Ironically, I think the appearance of foldable phones with larger screens may actually help spur this on, because, while the initial high prices of these devices may limit their sales, the appeal of quickly seeing content on your phone on a much bigger display is going to be universal. As a result, I expect to see more efforts that can create a larger-screen phone experience from a non-foldable phone going mainstream shortly after the launch of foldables.
Similarly, on the connectivity side, it’s going to be critical for multiple devices to share consistent, high-speed data connections. Again, we’ve started to see some efforts here from the carriers to let you add devices to an existing master data plan, but I think we’re going to need to see person-based plans that automatically connect all the devices an individual owns without having to worry about managing them individually. The expected proliferation of LTE and 5G-equipped devices will likely make this easier, but more work needs to be done to create a single connection persona that works across all our devices.
Of course, an interesting implication of all these developments is that the previously critical distinctions of different platforms, operating systems, and even applications start to become significantly less important. While I’ve said this many times before, it bears repeating that in the era of digital personas, it’s all about your data—not the software or even devices you happen to be using.
In the commercial world, products that take advantage of this device and platform independent approach also start to take on more importance over time. Products like Citrix’ Workspace, for example, have been built to create a digital environment that allows you to get access to your information and data, regardless of what device you happen to be using. Specific enterprise applications are still central to computing in the business world, so the ability to transparently virtualize applications built for one platform and let them run on another becomes a critical part of being able to function in the modern business environment. By adding in the ability to run tasks via microapps that require some amount of work across multiple applications (such as filling out and then filing expense reports), as Citrix has done with their Sapho acquisition, the company is taking the platform (and even application) independent concept even further.
While names like portable digital identities or digital personas may be a bit vague, there’s nothing unclear about the impact that these concepts are making on our computing environment and the advancements now occurring in the tech industry. The best technology advancements serve the needs that people have. Given the explosion of different devices and platforms, it’s never been more clear that people are hungry for capabilities that let them get access to their data and services in the easiest and most compelling way possible across the range of devices they now own. The time for expanded, multi-device digital identities is here.