The Next Mobile Era: Digital Identity

We are still deeply rooted in the first mobile era. However, As I am always looking for trends, I think it is interesting to form some ideas of what the next mobile era might look like.

While I think the very far off future will include the decentralization of the modern smartphone experience into other devices on or around our person, that is too far off to speculate. I think the mobile era will go through several phases. The first is the one we are currently in. This era is simply about driving adoption of smartphones for the mass market. This means making prices lower, while bringing capable computing to the masses. Very powerful and very inexpensive smartphones for the consumer. Only 26% of people on the planet have a smartphone. Bringing this to saturation at say 70-80% is the driving goal of this first era.

However, over the next few years, I think we will see more mature markets like China and the West start to enter the cusp of the next mobile era, which will be around identity.

I’m seeing the groundwork being laid, particularly by Apple, to center our digital identity as well as our analog identity, around the mobile personal computer we call a smartphone. Opening up the Touch ID APIs is the beginning of this shift. Right now 5s customers can use their fingerprint to log into their device and make purchases on iTunes. Very soon we will be able to use Touch ID to authenticate access to our houses through our smart-lock, or to do mobile banking payments, or even to manage every password of our life. Biometric authentication will be the first step in the transition to the mobile identity era.

Yet as we continue to advance into this era, it will be predicated upon the gathering of more personal digital data than today. Our analog self and our digital self will start to converge as the Internet of Things becomes mainstream. Take for example health and fitness wearables. As this technology evolves and becomes more capable of capturing very personal health, fitness, and location data along with our eating habits, home habits, shopping habits, working habits, and everything else we can dream up, we will begin to develop an in-depth digital profile of our analog lives. The sensors, we wear, put in or around our homes, and exist out in the world will be collecting quite a bit of data on us. But the one common point for this to be enabled will be our mobile device. These sensors will have a connection to the mobile computer. Via a protocol like Bluetooth LE, and in Apple’s case iBeacon, the mobile device will be the center point enabling the creation of our digital profile. But the key to this next era is where this data is stored, and how it is accessed in order to add value to our lives.

For example, in a sensor based world, my bed will be connected and collecting data about me when I sleep. My heart rate, breathing patterns, resting temperature, and more. Then as I get up and go about my day, other sensors will track my activity, diet, exercise, and anything else I’ve enabled to collect data. Once I have all this, from a health perspective, I may want to share key learnings with my doctor, or with friends and family. However, I will also be wary of having all that data simply go to the cloud in an insecure way. In fact, the security element of this will be the primary roadblock for the evolution to the mobile identity era. However, there is a solution to this problem. Hardware encryption.

Apple does this with Touch ID, where the fingerprint is stored in the Secure Enclave and encrypted and decrypted in real time. This is one of the primary reasons Apple moved to 64-bit in the A7 architecture. Encryption sees triple digit speed performance gains on 64-bit. In fact, I am confident the Touch ID experience would not be possible on a 32-bit architecture. But the overall point is the biometric data is hardware secured to my device. When I go to log in to my house through a smart door lock, my fingerprint is never exposed. All the door lock gets is a yes/no confirmation from the iPhone through the fingerprint verification process.

This is the simplest example of this today, but it will get more expansive over time. Hardware vendors can address this through hardware encryption so my intimate and personal health data, and all my other digital identity profiles, get locked down and encrypted at a security layer. This way, my digital identity as a whole is never fully revealed. I’m only authenticating certain parties to access the bits I want them to see — not the whole identity. In my health example above, I may want to share certain data with my Dr. but not my insurance company. I can authenticate my Dr. to see certain parts of my health data they need to access but my entire digital identity is never exposed. I’m convinced encrypting this data at the hardware level is the key to mobile identity era and it will be driven by 64-bit architectures as well as the advancement of more capable microprocessors in these devices.

Answering the 64-bit Question

This means that Android, and every other platform company and the hardware companies in their ecosystem, must address not only the 64-bit question but also solve the biometric solutions that will enable this process. The concern for Android is this era would somehow come into conflict with their business model. All of this data on our digital identity is valuable to Google, but given the intimate level of this data it is hard to believe people will trust Google with their digital identity. Microsoft may be in a better position given their business model is not entirely in conflict. Microsoft simply needs to address the ecosystem in order to develop this strategy out.

As microprocessor architectures advance, we will enable incredible amounts of computing power in these mobile devices over the next few years. If Apple’s A7 has a billion transistors today, it could have four billion transistors in 4-5 years. That is the kind of computing necessary to pull this off. Intel, Qualcomm, and others will need to enable this ecosystem. They are the architects for Apple’s competition.

As we shift to the mobile identity era, I believe it presents a very clear challenge to some of the dominant incumbents of the current mobile era and will open up opportunities for some of even the less obvious challengers for the next era.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

2 thoughts on “The Next Mobile Era: Digital Identity”

  1. You are very methodical in your thinking. I love reading when you write stuff like this. This is about the _next_ step, not necessarily what could happen further (too far to be honest) down the road, or even what might happen if an earthquake (metaphorically) hit tomorrow. You always seem to have this tacit understanding that anything could come along and change everything, but based on what you know now, what is in the works, and what is possible you create this triangulated position that is likely to be spot on. This is one of the reasons your site is my favourite tech site.


    1. Thanks much appreciated. This is something big I think we are on the cusp of and I think it will pose some serious challenges to a number of companies.

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