I am presently in Canada, attending the latest TTI Vanguard meeting on technology trends. We’re exploring how pervasive communications technologies will change art, influence science, and innovate business.
Yesterday, there was a particularly epochal presentation. We’re running under Chatham House Rules here, so I won’t disclose who was presenting, but the basic point was that the mobile phone will become a personal server in the immediate future.
We are all familiar with the phone as communications device, and are becoming more familiar with it as file storage and music repository. But at the moment, the phone is subordinate to our other devices, such as laptops. The short step in front of us is the reversal of that arrangement.
That’s going to change the value of my phone compared to my wallet. let’s face it, apart from ID and cash, the wallet is really just a place for a bank to live. IDs are just data anyway, and cash is in decline. NFC is just around the corner.
It is likely that when I have a little personal server in my pocket, I am going to ditch my wallet.
What evidence is there that personal servers are about to happen?
Firstly, while the phone itself doesn’t give you an especially good experience (mainly because it has a small screen and microscopic keyboard), the environments around us are increasingly populated with screens and keyboards. They are pervasive. All that’s necessary is that the phone can reach out and use these devices to provide a decent user experience. Conveniently, most phones have Bluetooth now, so the hardware exists. Singapore airlines now provide screens and keyboards in seat backs on some flights.
Secondly, it is possible to run server processes on phones without actually degrading the performance of the voice function. During the presentation, a linux handset -bought over the counter – was used live. It was running a media server, a file server, a web server, and a frame buffer server all on unmodified hardware. The latter means that the phone can write to a separate screen over a bluetooth connection.
Thirdly, both the processor and the battery life of current generation devices are capable of doing interesting things. Here’s an interesting statistic: a typical phone can stream 4 hours of media to an associated screen at high frame rates. Intel is planning to put ultra low power PC class processors in mobile phone devices any time now. So you can then run Office and all your other apps that you presently rely on.
Finally, device storage is almost at a magic number: 10gb per square inch. That’s the number, apparently, at which the amount of storage becomes interesting for most human applications (media, for example). Incidentally, recording audio for the entire life of one individual would take 3 terabytes of storage. Technology is not so far from that density in a mobile phone form factor.
So the world view being advanced here is that your digital life is your handset, which will make use of other devices it finds in its environment to provide a desktop class experience. Everything subordinate to the handset.
I think that most people would agree with me when I say that – today – if I had to choose between losing my wallet and my phone, I will choose to lose the phone every time. The level of inconvenience and risk involved in losing my wallet is considerable. I will be without my cards, without cash, and without ID. My life, to a large degree, stops.
But when my phone becomes a server with all my data, that immediately reverses. I would much rather lose my wallet in that case. The wallet, despite the inconvenience, is replaceable. But the data on the phone doesn’t represent just the financial slice of my life, it is everything about my life. With a built in data manipulation engine just waiting to be used.
Commentators, such as the prolific David Birch, have been discussing the migration of the wallet to the handset for ages. The fact of the matter, however, is that a personal server offers synergies rather more significant than the move of payment functionality from plastic. It co-locates bank functionality with the rest of my digital life.
Now I won’t pretend to have thought through all the implications of that, but it is a very, very significant shift. It will change the way that banks activate their customers. And it will certainly change the way that customers choose to interact with banks.