Imagine this: identity computing

October 25, 2012 | Leave a comment

I originally wrote this over on Google+.

I’m sat at my laptop, which has a monitor attached via a digital connection. On the other side of my desk is my phone, and a tablet.

That’s the setup I actually have right now, as I’m writing this. But all these devices (monitor aside) are connected to the Internet, rather than each other. And they’re mostly incompatible. What if they all knew about each other in relation to each other’s position? And what if they were part of one big, decentralized, identity-aware system?

I pull up my email, and with one mid-air gesture – swipe – it swooshes across to my second monitor. I grab a document, and with another gesture – swipe – it lands on my tablet. Finally, I take the project I’m working on, for example source code in an IDE, and with another gesture – swipe – it’s on my phone.

They’re all talking to each other as a mesh network, and because they’re all my devices, I can move applications to them with no problem, my computer and datastore always acting as the central hub, with authentication handled through my saved identity information.

Then you walk up holding a device (a phone, or a tablet), and I want to share that document with you. Swipe, thumbs up – after a gesture and a confirmation by both of us, you have the information running on your screen. I might revoke it later, but for now, you can read it and make suggestions. (And no, that thumbs up isn’t the default gesture, but I’m a cheeseball, and I like giving my data the thumbs up.)

You walk away, and your device switches seamless from the proximity mesh network to using the Internet to access the data and keep it synchronized. I decide to go for lunch, so I pick up my phone. My other devices lock down. While I’m at lunch, I can still check out all my data and applications through my phone, using my Internet connection. And as I walk back to my desk, my other devices unlock. I see that my colleague has used my laptop while I was away, but that’s cool; it will have used their phone as their identity, and they will have seen their own applications and data. In fact, these days I use my phone to authenticate everywhere – although I can choose any one of my devices to be my primary identity. I can pick a couple as secondaries, too, and I can always nominate a new primary if I lose or change my phone. And of course, this is my work ID; I can flip over to my personal ID, or a pseudonymous ID, if I need to. Depending on the permissions, I can even share data, applications and resources between IDs. (My work ID doesn’t let me do that, but I can certainly set my main personal ID and my pseudonym ID to share some stuff.)

Now that I’m back at my desk, I see that you’ve made some changes to the document. I accept them, revoke access, and swipe you a new document. Even though you’re not nearby, the Internet allows me to act as if you are. It’s as useful as it ever was, but it’s more of a long-range extender for my personal network, and a backup, than the place where I always live.

There’s no need for my applications to live in “the cloud”, although they could. But identity-aware decentralized computing gives me the freedom to share with the people I need to, on the devices that make sense at the time, in the place that makes sense at the time. My applications are smart enough to decouple form from function, so they adapt to the screen and capabilities of my choice (and the operating platform handles a lot of the heavy lifting here, making sure interfaces are consistent – and adhere to my settings – in the process). And my data can live anywhere I need it to.

Why can’t I …

May 18, 2012 | 1 comment

… Embed a discussion forum in a blog post?
… Stick games in an RSS feed and have them be playable in Google Reader?
… Post an encyclopedia to Pinterest?
… Bookmark a scene in a video?
… Move my profile to another site or domain name without breaking everything?
… Create a slideshow of newspaper articles? And email it to you?
… Link to an object?
… Make a movie like we make the web? (Collaboratively, with little bits in lots of places, all linked together?)
… Store my own Facebook profile, and choose the form of content I share there?
… Contact someone without worrying about which network my communications are carried across, and whether we use the same services?
… Own not just my identity online, but the form and scope of my communications (i.e., what shape it takes, who can see it, where it’s stored and how it’s transmitted), and have full control over all of it?

Profile: a serialized novel for email, web, Kindle and ePub

February 3, 2012 | Leave a comment

This is an excerpt from a new kind of project for me. Profile is a serial thriller about identity, the Internet and what happens when we trust companies to tell us what is and isn’t true. I’m going to treat the whole process – from writing through promotion – like a lean startup; more on that later.

Interested? Subscribe to receive news updates via email. It should go without saying that your email address is safe and won’t be shared with any third parties.


I huddled in the dark, under the wooden stairs leading out to the backyard, the metal of my unsheathed flash drive digging into my thigh. I could hear them in the house, opening drawers and moving furniture. They spoke to each other in a low murmur, an indistinguishable bassline while my Spotify playlists ran their course in the background, silently pushing unknown songs to my Facebook profile.

Through the clouds, an aircraft’s engines announced its descent.

I knew I would have to run. My backyard was surrounded by tall fencing on three sides, the result of neighbors jealously guarding their privacy. If I was going to make a break for it, I would need to climb over on one side, and I wasn’t sure if I could make it without drawing attention to myself.

Creaking floorboards. Inside, the men were moving from room to room. I wasn’t sure how many of them were, but it sounded like five at least: enough to keep guard while the others looked around.

From the glimpse I’d had of them when I looked through my bedroom window and seen them marching towards my house, they were police of some kind. They weren’t uniformed, as such, but each wore an identical suit, and each of them had been reaching for something as they approached my front door. It could have been phones, or documents, or anything, but I didn’t want to risk it. Particularly now as they’d forced their way into my home.

My breath caught the reflected light from the house in front of me, hot clouds of condensation reaching out into the cold of the night. I realized I was panicking.

“He’s still here,” one of them said, his voice urgent and raised enough for me to hear. “His phone’s on the network.”

The wifi! I whipped my handset out of my pocket and pushed down the power button to turn it off. Its screen lit up the yard, turning the grass and my weeds unnatural shades of blue and orange as the men ran through the house in an avalanche of heavy footsteps, down to the back door to find me.

Quickly, I set my phone on a ten second timer, and threw it over the fence to my left as hard as I could. Panting, my heart in my throat, I scrambled past the trashcans and garden debris to the alley beside my house, flung my back against the wall, and waited.


Coming soon.

Identity is the operating system

January 15, 2012 | Leave a comment

"Dude, you can make calls on your camera?!" (photo by @troy)I’ve got a phone number: +1 (312) 488-9373. Feel free to call or text it.

If I’m walking around, you’ll get me on my Samsung Galaxy S II. If I’m in transit (but not driving), you’ll probably get me on my iPad. If I’m at my desk, I’ll answer and take the whole call through my laptop. For you, the experience of contacting me will be exactly the same (give or take some background noise). For me, the experience fits my context: I can make and receive calls and texts on any of my devices. The same is true for email.

Consumption works the same way. All my important files are stored on Dropbox. If I need to get at something – for example, a work-in-progress piece of writing, or a receipt – I can pick up any of my Internet-connected devices and grab the contents. Similarly, my notes, which I take through Evernote: I can create and consume these anywhere.

A final example: I love movies. Watching them at the theater is still magical for me, but I also enjoy them elsewhere, depending on what kind of movie it is. (My favorite streamable new release right now is Midnight in Paris. A great film.)

At home, I use my dedicated media PC to play through a sound system and flat-screen monitor. It’s not perfect, but it works. Elsewhere, I might use my laptop or my iPad. On the road, I can play the same movie through the same service on my phone, or I may be able to take a downloaded version for offline consumption.

So far, so obvious. These are all known use cases that demonstrate why the consumer Internet is so powerful. But I have a question:

Shouldn’t applications, services and content be sold to me, instead of my devices?

Right now, I have to set each of my services up on each of my devices, and tell them to use the same account. That sometimes doesn’t work perfectly: for some reason, for example, I seem to have two Path accounts – one for my US handset, and one for my UK handset. I’m not sure how this happened.

Ideally, I want to sign up:

  1. Once for each device, to tell them that I own it, and where I store my identity.
  2. Once more for each service or application, to associate them with my identity.
  3. The filesystem would be networked and bound to the identity. So rather than storing it on its own infrastructure, Evernote would save notes to my filesystem, which could potentially be accessed by other networked software.
  4. Each identity would have an Internet-accessible unique identifier and point of entry.

The applications would then automagically become available on each of my devices. Crucially, when I go to buy or rent Midnight in Paris, it then is also available on all of my devices, because I’m renting via my identity rather than any one device. For the next 24 hours, say, I can stream the movie wherever is most convenient. If I buy a license for Microsoft Office, then it is licensed to my identity and I can use it on any of my devices.

This is literally a per-seat model for selling software. It makes buying and consuming simple, and will reduce piracy.

So here’s a follow-on question. It’s a dull-sounding one, but bear with me:

Wouldn’t this make enterprise provisioning dramatically easier?

Right now, system administrators in enterprise environments push software over their networks, and often refuse to allow non-approved hardware onto their infrastructure in order to make this easier. In an identity-centric model, though, where applications are delivered using Internet technologies:

  1. Software would be provisioned to identities rather than machines.
  2. The available identity domains and software on any given network could be locked down as appropriate (so, for example, I could bring in my smartphone but only use a sanctioned identity with it if I wanted to connect to the local network).

Wouldn’t this make consumer applications dramatically less annoying?

For me, the answer is “yes”. I don’t want to care about my devices and their capabilities, and I’m a CTO with a computer science degree. End users want their software to seamlessly “just work”, and they want to seamlessly be able to move content from one machine to another, or share to another person no matter what that thing happens to be, or where their data is stored. Right now, operating systems have become gatekeepers: bottlenecks that get in the way of users.

For me, this is the real application of a decentralized social web. It’s not just about sending messages around – it’s about using the Internet to create a fabric of interdependent applications where we retain control of our data (those identities and networked filesystems could be anywhere) while enjoying a simpler experience. Application providers and content owners sell more of their products, because they’re easier to consume, everyone loves their devices that little bit more, and every new product sold becomes a window onto a much bigger, connected ecosystem that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Photo by Troy Holden, released under a Creative Commons license.

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