Smartphones as Keys

islands in the netOne of the technologies mentioned in Bruce Sterling’s 1989 novel Islands in the Net (here’s its Wikipedia entry) is the watchphone. Worn like a wristwatch (remember those?), the watchphone was a personal computer that you carried about everywhere and functioned as many things, including timepiece, mobile phone, personal organizer and keys to your house. Today’s smartphones are used in pretty much the same way, and in some cases, in ways that Sterling didn’t anticipate. The two big differences between watchphones and real-world smartphones are:

  • We don’t wear them on our wrists. They’re more like the pocket watches of old.
  • We don’t use them like keys…yet!

The New York Times article Tools of Entry, No Need for a Key Chain shows we may be striking that second item from the list above soon:

  • Schlage – you’ve probably seen that brand name on a lock or one of your keys – has the LiNK system which lets you control access to your house either via the internet or smartphone. The article mentions a real-life example where someone let a friend into his house by unlocking the door remotely from his office.
  • Daimler-Benz has the mbrace app (available for iPhone and BlackBerry), which lets you remotely unlock and lock your Mercedes’ doors with your smartphone.
  • Zipcar has similar apps for the iPhone and Android.
  • GM has an app for remotely starting your car and locking/unlocking its doors.

Right now, using your smartphone as a key isn’t as simple as using an electronic key fob or one of those magnetic keycards that you see dangling from white-collar office workers everywhere. You often have to unlock your phone, launch the app, then press the correct button or buttons to unlock a door. NFC (Near Field Communication) chips, which are starting to appear in smartphones will make it easier to use phones as keys, but it’ll be a couple of years before they’re commonplace.

There are also some issues that we’ll have to deal with in a world where smartphones are keys:

  • What happens if your phone runs out of power?
  • What happens if you phone gets stolen? Unlike keys, your phone will be able to unlock your door from anywhere.
  • What happens in a network or power outage?

It’ll be interesting figuring this stuff out in the next couple of years.

This article also appears in the Shopify Technology Blog.

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