Why the ‘i’ in iPhone Will Stand For ‘Identity’

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The “i” in the next iPhone will stand for “identity.”

When people hear rumors and read about Apple’s patents for NFC, they think: “Oh, good, the iPhone will be a digital wallet.”

When they hear rumors about fingerprint scanning and remember that Apple bought the leading maker of such scanners, they think: “Oh, good, the iPhone will be more secure.”

But nobody is thinking different about this combination. Everybody is thinking way too small.

I believe Apple sees the NFC chip and fingerprint scanner as part of a Grand Strategy: To use the iPhone as the solution to the digital identity problem.

NFC plus biometric security plus bullet-proof encryption deployed at iPhone-scale adds up to the death of passwords, credit cards, security badges, identity theft and waiting in line.

Apple loves to solve huge, hitherto unsolved problems. And there is no problem bigger from a lost-opportunity perspective than digital identity.

The Boston Consulting Group estimates that the total value created through real digital identity is $1 trillion by 2020 in Europe alone.

(I’ll give you a moment to purge the mental image of Dr. Evil raising pinky to lips and arching one eyebrow.)

The report details how simply knowing for sure who people are when they’re online transforms entire economies.

The Wikipedia entry on digital identity zeros in on the opportunity for Apple:

“Currently there are no ways to precisely determine the identity of a person in digital space. Even though there are attributes associated to a person’s digital identity, these attributes or even identities can be changed, masked or dumped and new ones created. Despite the fact that there are many authentication systems and digital identifiers that try to address these problems, there is still a need for a unified and verified identification system in cyberspace. Thus, there are issues of privacy and security related to digital identity.”

The biggest barrier to digital identity nirvana is that prior solutions are either too complex or too privacy invading for consumers to accept.

And that’s why all the major Silicon Valley companies are desperately trying to solve this gigantic problem.

Why Facebook and Google+ Are All About Identity

While users view social networks as a way to stay in touch with family and friends and get socially selected streams of content, the companies that make social networks view them as elaborate schemes to solve the identity problem.

In fact, Google honcho Eric Schmidt came right out and said it: “Google+ was created primarily as an identity service.”

And Om Malik nailed it when he said: “The real power of Facebook lies in controlling connected identity.”

Both Google and Facebook made big pushes to turn their social networks into solid identity services. And both those attempts have largely failed so far.

Google+ came on strong with an initial demand that users use their “real name.” After a colossal backlash, Google backed off and their policy is currently in limbo. The other problem is the impossibility of verifying identity at scale. How do you know if Rusty Pipes, who just registered for a Google+ account, is really who he says he is?

Facebook made an even nuttier attempt at verifying, asking users to actually scan their passports and other government-issued photo ID and send the images to Facebook over the public Internet in an ill-conceived trial. The scheme was so nutty many people thought it was a hoax.

Also: Both Facebook and more recently Google are making big plays to become the de-facto means by which you can sign on to millions of sites on the Internet.

Google’s Google+ Sign-In now competes directly against Facebook Connect.

Establishing one’s company as the de facto digital identity layer is the single biggest business opportunity in history. Any company that acquires this status could become the world’s credit card, the world’s gate keeper to all transactions and the world’s main source of digital security in all its myriad forms.

I think Apple can succeed where the social networks failed.

The reason is that Apple has a better deal for users. The social network proposed both a small stick and a small carrot: Use one account and use your real name because then everything is better. That approach failed.

Apple’s proposition is much better: Use the Identity iPhone, and stop keying in passwords, credit card numbers, billing information and more. As you cruise through the Internet, all the doors will open for you and you can securely use and buy and access anything you want without any work.

How Apple Will Use the Identity iPhone

Once you’ve associated your actual fingerprint with your iPhone, your iPhone becomes you — better than a photo ID, better than a signature, better than a password.

Today, a swipe of the finger on an iPhone conjures up the 4-digit passcode lock. If you spend some quality time with the Passcode Lock page in Settings, you can see that you have an option to turn it on or off, require it immediately or after one, five or fifteen minutes or after one or four hours. It also allows you to access or not access Passbook and the ability to reply to a message when the phone is locked.

All those settings may be identical to the fingerprint scanning feature of the next iPhone.

In other words, fingerprint scanning will be both optional and highly configurable.

I do not believe Apple will allow the old passcode as an alternative, because that’s not how Apple rolls. They’ll want to firmly encourage users to embrace and accept password authentication.

I believe Apple intends to build both NFC and fingerprint readers into iMacs and iPads.

When you set your iPhone next to the keyboard of your iMac, all your online activity will identity you to various sites, which means that you’ll have an “E-Z Pass” right through password dialogs and credit card pages. You’ll just be able to log in as you and buy stuff without typing anything.

The same thing will happen when you set your iPhone next to somebody else’s iMac, too.

Or, you can swipe your finger on the reader built into the keyboard.

In the Real World, you’ll be able to authenticate purchases either via Bluetooth or NFC, skipping the line at the movie theater, department store and gas station. You’ll be billed, and be able to pay for your restaurant meal without the waiter’s involvement. (Letting a stranger take your credit card out of your sight is one of the weakest links in the way commerce works right now.)

I know, I know. This is all the generic promise of NFC and digital wallet technology, which has been around for years but which has failed to gain mainstream acceptance, for the most part.

But remember: This is Apple we’re talking about, the world’s great creator of markets. This is the company that single-handledly created the digital music market, the digital media player market, the multi-touch smartphone market and the touch-tablet market.

When Apple does something like this, they’re capable of creating the house that everybody lives in.

And that, I believe, is what Apple is going to do with the next iPhone. By combining NFC with fingerprint scanning, plus very consumer-friendly and highly secure software and network solutions, Apple is going to make the “i” in iPhone mean “identity.”

Can Apple succeed with digital identity where others have failed?

Related
  • geoadm

    I’d be happy to hand over my identity to Apple. They have most of it through my Apple ID anyway. What I don’t like is handing over my identity to companies whose entire profit comes from advertising. Google, Facebook and Twitter all have heavily abbreviated or fake personal details. It’s funny how the always trying to get a bit more using “making your account more secure” as the reason.

  • iJustinCabral

    This article could of been a bit better just by doing a little bit of research into the naming of previous iPhone “S” models. iPhone 3GS was speed, iPhone 4S was Siri, and now iPhone 5S will be Security. A much better title would have been, Why the “S” in iPhone 5S will stand for Security.

  • vaio1990

    Epic

  • Trezoristo

    Apart from the fact that, as far as I know, fingerprint reading is not as secure as you might think it is, I do believe there is the possibility here to make a great product. But it won’t take over the world. The reason for that is that an iPhone costs quite a bit of money and all the other identity services you name are free.

    Besides, this idea doesn’t solve the fundamental problem you name with other identity schemes. Because nothing stops you from using a fake name in combination with your real fingerprint, companies still can’t be sure whether a person really is the person he claims to be.

    What’s left is still a nice product, but basically not more than a good two-factor authentication scheme integrated in a phone. For example: I currently use a Yubikey in combination with Lastpass to secure my online identity, and apparently the former company is in talks with Google, no doubt thinking about something similar you have in mind here.

    In the end I’m convinced we’ll end up with several competing schemes. Considering the importance of this issue, I believe not having a single company be responsible for nearly everybody’s security is probably for the best.

  • derektimothy

    Fantastic article. Well written, and bold. The ideas you put forth are both grandiose yet a stroke of brilliance. You’ve convinced me that they will either do this, or have made a big mistake in not doing it.

  • pmontanarella

    Great article! If this is true, this will be the thing that shoots Apple back up to the top! Can’t wait to see what the future reveals!

  • Steffen Jobbs

    Won’t it be easy for Samsung to reverse-engineer a fingerprint reader and have one ready for every smartphone Samsung makes within a a few months time? Everyone knows that Samsung can copy things far faster than developing something on its own. For all we know, Samsung may already have fingerprint readers in the pipeline for the Galaxy S5. Samsung has a huge staff set aside for copying rival’s products so Apple will only have an advantage for just a few months at most. I’m not certain but aren’t fingerprint readers relatively common on Windows notebooks made by Toshiba and H-P and the industry has never made that big a deal out of it. In fact, I’d heard they weren’t all that secure as made out to be.

  • stefn

    Not identity but security. Security’s the big deal. Mike, be careful or Leo won’t let you back on TWIT.

  • Werd

    To those saying samsung will be able to copy this:
    The point of Apple being the prime candidate for this role is not that they are great at hardware. It’s that they have all the pieces already. here’s the progression. Fingerprint scanner is where the user starts–from there the NFC/Bluetooth/whatever secure site you want to buy something from simply is told that you are an “apple identity”—then your “identity” already has all your likes/dislikes(genius, plus twitter/facebook integration) as well as your payment information(how many itunes accounts are there already?), as well as your secure passcodes and personal information(used for your icloud account)—this info is automatically used to make whatever barriers non “identities” have to go through disappear. what is left is a thoroughly Apple-esque level of ease of use, not only with all things iOS, but with ALL THINGS in general. samsung cannot replicate the infrastructure apple already has in place. Maybe if samsung(hardware), Google(Android operating system), Facebook(social connections and personal information), dropbox(cloud-sync), and VISA(massive secure payment data) all teamed up, they could pull of a competitor in a short time. But I think everyone can see how unlikely that is.

About the author

Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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