Twinning Is Key to Connected Devices

The world of connected devices continues to evolve rapidly, with new products, new concepts and new services coming forward at a breakneck pace. From 3G and 4G-equipped smartwatches, broadband-enabled cars, and carrier-offered services to connect them, there’s been a rash of new devices to add to our growing collections and more affordable mechanisms for doing so.

As the number of connected devices that people own goes up, however, there’s also the increasing recognition of the challenges associated with making them work together. Most people are eager to have their many devices work as a coherent whole so that services, messages, and other forms of communication are consistent and in-sync across all of them.

In fact, this is one of the key tenets of a digital identity: the ability to communicate, and access your media, documents or services, regardless of which device you happen to be using at the time. As I’ve argued before, I firmly believe digital identities are going to be an incredibly important issue moving forward. With more and more of the things we do, in both our personal and professional lives, becoming digitized, the ability to consistently access all of our digital “stuff” will soon be something we can’t imagine we lived without.

Right now, however, there are a few roadblocks preventing us from achieving that vision. One of them involves the concept of twinning, which basically means having multiple devices use the same phone number (really—the same SIM card access capabilities). With twinning, for example, you could send someone a text message and it would show up on both their smartphone and any other connected wearable, such as a connected smartwatch. More importantly, without twinning, the smartphone, and any other connected device with its own SIM card, would each have its own number. That means you’d have to remember to send a text to a friend or colleague’s smartwatch or other connected device number in the event they didn’t have their smartphone with them. Not exactly ideal. In fact, this is one of the key downsides I see to the otherwise intriguing MICA fashion-oriented smart bracelet from Intel and Opening Ceremony.[pullquote]Without twinning, the smartphone, and any other connected device with its own SIM card, would each have its own number. That means you’d have to remember to send a text to a friend or colleague’s smartwatch.”[/pullquote]

Many people are looking to simplify their lives and are already merging their personal phones and business phones into one, so the idea of adding yet another complication to communications via wearables, or other connected devices, is not going to be appealing to many. While not everyone is moving toward phone consolidation, the improved quality of virtualization tools and other “containerization” technologies is making the ability to separate a single device into two personalities—personal and work—a much more viable option. As a result, the desire to make connected wearables work more seamlessly with other devices is going to be critically important.

Now admittedly, there are plenty of other forms of communication that don’t rely on the phone number. For example, most web-based messaging tools, social networks, etc., simply require a user account name. That account name can be entered on multiple devices, thereby allowing a consistent experience across those devices. Additionally, a few wearables, like the Samsung Galaxy Gear S, use a form of call forwarding that can get around the multi-number issue to some degree, but not as completely and elegantly as twinning.

The problem with twinning is that right now no major US carrier supports it. AT&T has announced plans to add support for twinning to its network by the end of this year. Other carriers will likely follow suit, but that’s still a ways off. The challenge is that there are apparently a number of network upgrades that have to be made in order to offer the capability. In other words, it’s not as easy as you might think.

Given the momentum that’s occurring in the marketplace, both from a component and finished device perspective, I have no question that we will be seeing a lot more devices with integrated cellular broadband connectivity. With improvements in radios, battery life, and service plans already made and more on the way, it’s an easy prediction to make. However, limited support for twinning could make that reality a bit further off into the future than it might otherwise first appear.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

12 thoughts on “Twinning Is Key to Connected Devices”

  1. Twinning is important. Isn’t this what Apple has been doing for a while with iMessage, Facetime and now various continuity features where you can tell all your devices which of your several sub-identities can deliver messages and which one you send from.
    I can get messages via 2 phone numbers (US and UK) and 3 emails and send from an appropriate number depending on country/device. Macs can send and receive standard SMS via the phones etc. Mostly closed ecosystem I know but it is starting to include non-proprietary standards and points at what you are getting at.

    Not sure if this is a carrier solvable solution vs the OS/ecosystem provider.

    1. Yes, your comments on Continuity are valid ones and things I had thought about as I wrote the piece, but as you point out, right now it is a closed system. Still, they reflect how companies are trying to synchronize all these services (from messaging to documents to media, etc.) across multiple devices.

      1. Bob,
        Let’s not forget the reason it hasn’t happened yet is because the telecoms tech issues but more importantly their monetization issues.

        Att and Verizon aspire to be ad companies like Google.

        All these companies want to charge consumers for the convenience and twinning allows them to consolidate user data from two or more devices.

        It’s a profit maker from both sides.

    2. Looks to me like an OS/ecosystem problem. Carriers are not always involved, and at this stage of the game a user only cares that they are connected to the internet, whatever the technical means (WiFi, LTE). Apple’s Continuity is a good example of a current solution, still in its infancy, that leverages an ecosystem to deliver some benefits of a digital ID. Other, less complete examples are IMAP email, Gmail. Google Docs, and OneDrive – they each contain elements of Continuity, but cannot deliver at the device level.

      The idea of a “phone number” is becoming increasingly arcane, tied to an electro-mechanical world view. An internet-based ID feels inevitable, but must that be email?

  2. I think there 2 aspects to the issue:
    1- a low-level network connectivity aspect. Wifi is cool that way: as long as you can supply credentials, any device can connect. 3G/4G isn’t cool: access doesn’t rely only on a user account, but on a physical hard-coded SIM.
    2- a high-level cloud service issue, where once I’m physically connected to the network, I can access the services I’m subscribed to from the device I’m currently on. That requires a level of abstraction that phone calls and texts don’t offer, while messaging apps, Skype et al., email, VOIP, … do.
    I’m unsure why mobile carriers are reluctant to decouple network access from physical device (they could price per traffic and/or number of devices), and also services from device (ditto, they could price per service and/or number of devices). There might be a technical complexity factor: mobile network need to be more reliable than your typical wifi network. There’s certainly a lock-in issue -carriers *want* your phone calls and texts to be dependent on them- and probably an innovation+presentation issue – it’s harder to figure out how to price, sell and explain that new paradigm than to stick with the old way-.
    I think Google Voice provided (still provides ?) that one extra level of abstraction for phone calls and texts. It never got to my shores though, so not sure.

    1. Yes, my sense is there are some challenges to making twinning work in the network–hence the delays in rolling it out. As you point out, the carriers are keen to keep services tied to your number and while the IP-based web services break that bond, voice and text are important enough that they need to be part of a solution as well.

  3. This future we are heading towards, where your authenticated digital identity allows you to access and manage significant aspects of your day-to-day life is a future that poses an incredibly complex coordination problem between and among the devices, platforms and apps that will make such a future possible. Your belief on how complex this problem will be should dictate which business model you think will best deliver this future, integrated or modular? Monolith or coalition?

    1. Well, frankly, I think we’re going to see a number of experiments with regard to business model here because it is a whole new world. In fact, it wouldn’t shock at some point if there was some level of governmental regulation because of how important and elemental it will eventual be. Near term I think we will see some efforts that are more monolithic (e.g., from Apple) and some that are a bit more coalition-like. Because of the existing (and likely increasing) diversity of the device and platform eco-system, I think long term it’s going to take a more platform-agnostic approach.

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