Hong Kong venture capitalist Arthur Wang has 3 mobile phone numbers, 6 email addresses, 2 fax numbers, 3 fixed-line phone numbers with voice mailboxes and 1 corporate URL. He spends an average of 8 hours a day, seven days a week communicating by phone, email or fax. He regularly logs more than a quarter of a million air miles a year. And for the last six years he's never had a mobile phone bill less than $1000 - even on vacations.
"I guess I'm what you could describe as a 'massive user'," Wang says with a laugh during an interview in the back of a taxi making its way to Hong Kong's Lantau Island airport where he has a 5PM flight to Singapore. During the course of the 35-minute ride, he fields 11 phone calls - 8 on the Ericsson T68 he uses for business and 3 on the Nokia 8310 he reserves exclusively for friends and family.
Four hours from now, when he arrives in Singapore, Wang estimates that more than 50 emails, 5-10 voicemails and a half dozen faxes will be awaiting his attention. But before he can get to them he has a late business dinner, which will probably last until midnight. After that he anticipates he will spend the next two and a half hours responding to all his emails, voicemails and faxes.
"It's the communications equivalent of multiple personality disorder," says Wang. "After all, I'm one person and what everyone is attempting, in the most basic sense, is to communicate directly with me. But because of the different forms of communication and the different services I have to use, what should be a simple and straightforward process gets spread out over multiple points of contact that takes hours out of my day to manage."
Something's gone horribly wrong, here
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Email, voicemail, faxes and mobile phones were all supposed to make communicating simpler and more convenient. Instead they've created a morass in most people's lives - a tangled web of identities, numbers and points of contact that require constant maintenance and eat up the most precious resource people possess - their free time.
"The fact is, many consumers often don't realize how complex their communications environment is and how much effort they already exert, often unconsciously, to manage it," says Michael Tchao, founder of the consulting firm Tchaohaus that has worked on this issue with numerous companies. "In research we did, we found that there are basically two types of people: Those who feel that they control their communications environment and those who feel controlled by it."
Ironically, those who feel most in control are those whose identities are spread out over the greatest number of addresses and points of contact. Tchao believes this is how consumers have responded to an increasingly complex communications environment. And because this system of management through distributed identities is the evolutionary path consumers have taken, it also represents the greatest obstacle to that Holy Grail of all communications - the idea of a one-number world.
"We have to prove to consumers that we can give them at least the same amount of control, convenience and simplicity that the multiple address/multiple phone number scheme gives them," explains Tchao. "Not only that, but there must also be significant additional benefits, such as convenience, cost and the ability for even more control before they can see their way clear to a single point of contact world."
One number to rule them all
In the 1990s, digital revolutionaries and wireless gurus assured us that the reality of this "one-number world" was just around the corner. That the evolutionary path would inevitably lead to a single point of contact - be it a telephone number, email address or URL - where all communications regardless of their format could be aggregated and managed on a single device. Yet today, as people struggle with their various inboxes, voicemail boxes and buddy lists, this dream of a one-number world seems more like an idea that's gone over the horizon.
The IT world has tangled with a related issue for more than a decade and the results are less than encouraging. Since the early 1990s, the computer industry has been touting the idea of a single log-in - a user name and password that would only have to be entered once for consumers to access everything from email to bank accounts to authorizing credit card payments. Though companies as diverse as Microsoft, Yahoo and the Visa Corporation have spent millions in their attempts to find a solution, with few exceptions consumers today are still forced to use dozens of passwords each time they navigate the Web.
So what's the prognosis for the wireless world? With 3G and other emerging technologies promising to bring Web-like capabilities to mobile handsets, it would seem the same problems of multiple identities and user passwords will simply be ported over to the wireless space. Yet wireless has a number of crucial advantages that may just bring about a simpler, less schizophrenic world for its 1 billion users.
The first is cooperation. Because of roaming and receiver-pays issues, wireless providers at both the national and international level have had no choice but to cooperate with one another. As a result, not only wireless providers but also manufacturers of mobile handsets and infrastructure equipment have had to agree on a host of matters ranging from SMS formats to billing systems. Though most of these began as bilateral agreements, as the industry matures it has realized that its future lies in the acceptance of universal standards. The International Telecommunications Union, which agreed upon 6 3G standards, and the Open Mobile Architecture Initiative, an industry-wide body to promote standard APIs, are both examples of how this is working.
Compare that to the computer industry, where the war is still raging over standards such as Sun Microsystems' Java or Microsoft's Active-X. The wireless world, for its part, is still deeply divided between its GSM and CDMA spheres. But as the industry-wide agreement over 3G standards demonstrates, it appears to be moving beyond that to a point where the industry doesn't compete on standards, but on their implementation.
A second advantage is that the wireless industry doesn't have the luxury of lots of screen real estate. The ever-shrinking form factor of mobile handsets means that they will always be poor devices for the inputting of large amounts of data. The industry is already attacking this problem by creating "safe areas" in handset memory where passwords or credit card numbers can be stored once and either recalled with a few simple keystrokes or accessed automatically.
One solution: Invert the problem
Where this differs from the IT industry is that this information resides with the user on a personal, trusted device rather than on the server of a large corporation. So instead of leaving a credit card number on dozens of different servers across the Web, it stays on the mobile handset just as the physical card remains in a user's wallet. That not only gives users more control (not to mention peace of mind), but it also eliminates the need to use multiple passwords and identities to access what amounts to their own personal information.
A third advantage, but also the one that presents the most problems, is the issue of ownership. In the Web world, Yahoo, Hotmail or a local ISP owns a users email address. In the wireless arena, although owners of GSM handsets can transfer SIM cards between different handsets, they still can't transfer a SIM from one carrier to another. But that situation, too, is slowly changing.
The European Union is currently considering legislation that will allow people to keep their own numbers regardless of which provider they use. In the US, Tchao and other analysts predict that it's only a matter of time before the FCC mandates similar legislation. In fact, the trend is catching on worldwide. In China, for example, China Unicom, which just launched the country's first CDMA network, has ordered handset makers to create a UIM card that will allow subscribers to keep the same number regardless of which phone they use.
One industry figure who has done some of the deepest thinking on this issue is Peter Vesterbacka, founder and Global Leader of Business Development of the HP Bazaar in Helsinki. Vesterbacka believes that in its simplest terms the entire issue of multiple identities can boiled down to that of - who do you trust?
"One way of looking at this issue is to examine where large chunks of this identity already reside, at who already has these customer relationships," he says. "Other than on the devices themselves, where you see this information being stored is with banks, credit card companies, operators and other trusted parties in this business."
Operators and financial institutions already have billing relationships with their customers. As Vesterbacka sees it, the key now is not to try to induce consumers to enter into more and more of those relationships, but to create a set of standards where providers of mobile services, retailers and other companies can tap into the existing relationship. The Liberty Alliance, an umbrella organization that includes Nokia, Ericsson, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and others players from the both the IT and wireless worlds, is already working on ways to consolidate identities and authenticate users across different networks, technologies and services.
In the end, the most likely scenario, according to Vesterbacka, is one where users have a distributed federated identity. In other words, users have a single number that is used to activate different parts of their identity that may reside with the Visa Corporation or Vodafone.
"It is indeed ironic," says Vesterbacka, "but to enable a single number or single log-in, we're going to have to spread bits and pieces of you all over the place."
Eric Ransdell is the former Silicon Valley Bureau Chief for US News and World Report magazine. Now living in Shanghai, he covers mobile technology in Asia.