Sunday, February 20, 2011

Behold! The Future?

The last blog post resulted in quite a few discussions with a variety of interesting people. Several other bloggers such as Harlan Carvey, Lenny Zeltzer, and David Sullivan picked up on the post and discussed it in their own blogs. One of the conversations that planted a seed in my mind was one that I had with Jake Jacobson. You probably don’t know Jake, but I’m working on fixing that. He’s one of the two people who I am currently interviewing for the blog. Jake is a digital forensics leader for a government digital forensics lab.  He has a tremendous amount of experience in the field and I enjoy talking to him because of his insight into a variety of topics in digital forensics.

In our conversation, Jake posited that the Motorola Atrix might be a vision of the future of mobile computing. As I discussed it with him and thought about it more after our conversation, I think he’s correct. While I’m not necessarily predicting the demise of the laptop computer, I think we’re approaching a time where the traditional laptop device is going to be deemphasized at least in the consumer market. What I find fascinating about the Atrix is that it’s the first dockable 4G smartphone that I’m aware of being marketed by a major manufacturer. The Atrix dock allows the user to connect their phone to an HD monitor as well as a keyboard and mouse. Essentially, it’s smart phone that can be a least partially used in a manner of a traditional dockable laptop computer. However, it’s not necessarily being marketed as a replacement for a laptop computer. In fact, it has a Lapdock that allows the device to connect to a laptop. However, it’s easy to see that as time and technology march on, these sort of devices could start replacing laptops in at least some circumstances.

One of the major divides with computing devices is the ability to consume content and the ability to create content. Traditional desktop and laptop devices are able to create content as well as consume it.  Mobile devices like smart phones and tablet computers are primarily designed to consume content. As these devices become more powerful, they will increasingly be able to create content. However, it’s not just processing power that is a barrier to content creation. The user interface is also a key issue.  Even if your smart phone was capable of content creation, do you really want to do it on a four inch touchscreen? That’s not a design that is conducive to long or complicated content creation sessions. However, if you could dock your smart phone into a docking station and use a mouse, keyboard, and monitor (which may also be touchscreen capable), the user interface experience is no longer a barrier.

So then I wonder about disk space. Technological advances continue to drive the price of storage technology down all the while increasing what can be stored on ever shrinking storage devices. Even now there is a significant amount of storage capacity on smart phones through the use of high capacity microSD cards. I think that as wireless bandwidth becomes cheaper, faster, and more reliable, we’ll see increased use of cloud based storage solutions that can be used for content creation rather than just content storage. In the future, I doubt we’ll need terabytes of storage on a mobile device to be able to use terabytes of data for content creation purposes on that same device.

While I‘m still not predicting the demise of the laptop computer, I suspect the future of mobility in computing lies with smart phones rather than laptops. Even the laptops are becoming more mobile. It’s more likely that the future of laptop computing will look more like the Macbook Air and less like the traditional laptops we see in many homes and corporate environments today.

I’m convinced we are going to see smart phones being increasingly used for financial transactions especially in the retail world. There are a couple of other technological twists for smart phones that I want to bring to your attention before I continue on. We’re already at the point where you can use your smart phone as an airline boarding pass. The user simply has to have an email send to their smart phone which includes a QR Code that can be scanned by a gate agent. It’s not a terribly difficult solution for the airlines to implement, but it shows how these devices can be use to replace older technology such as printed boarding pass.  The other interesting twist is that Google has announced that it now supports two-step authentication for Google accounts. This method provides the option to use a smart phone in the authentication process.

I think this is the sort of thing that we’re going to see in relation to using smart phones to facilitate credit card transactions. It could start out as using a smart phone to authenticate a transaction involving a physical credit card. In that sort of scenario, the physical credit card is still handed to the retail clerk or scanned into a card reader. However, the transaction does not complete until an authentication message is sent to the smart phone and validated by the user using, for example, some sort of password.  This would require a very reliable wireless network before it would be adopted by the public. The last thing you want is to be standing in line at Target with a half dozen impatient people behind you staring at you as you fumble with your phone trying to get it to authenticate your transaction, but being unable to do so because of poor network connectivity.

With a reliable wireless network (there’s a Six Sigma project in someone’s future), you could eliminate the physical credit card from the process. Banks could also potentially eliminate persistent credit card numbers which could greatly reduce their exposure to certain forms of credit card fraud. Maybe we end up with a scenario where a smart phone credit card application is linked to the bank through a our reliable wireless network. When a purchase is to be made, that application communicates with the bank and issues a one time temporary credit card number for that particular transaction. That one time number is transmitted to the retailer through something like a QR Code that is scanned by the retailer from the phone. Further authentication can be built into the process by requiring some sort of biometric authentication (let’s just imagine a future without passwords while were speculating) from the user before the transaction can be completed.

This could also be used as a protection against the various credential stealing money laundering bits of malware that are active in the wild currently. So Zeus steals your bank account information, but when the money is set to be removed from your account and sent to a money mule, an authentication message is sent to your smart phone alerting you to the transaction.


  1. Great post! The mobile device field is definitely the future of digital forensics. As for the idea of using cell phones in credit card transactions, the future is now:

  2. Hey Eric,

    I think they got the idea for the Atrix from my blog post, Computer Forensics The Next Ten Years. :-)