Identity: The Connective Tissue of the Internet of Things


Image copyright Eric Krouse

During a presentation at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2013 Technology Conference, Marc Benioff mentioned something bizarre, if not intriguing: Phillips, the electronics company long known for staple consumer products like TVs, cameras and audio equipment, was working on a new toothbrush. But this was not going to be any ordinary toothbrush. To meet the demands of consumers discontented with mere bristles on a stick, Benioff said Phillips was developing a toothbrush with GPS, Wi-Fi and “realtime feedback on how I brush my teeth. When I see the dentist and he asks, ‘Marc, have you been brushing?’ I can’t lie to the dentist anymore. He’s got all the data.”

While the concept of “The Internet of Things” isn’t new,’s charismatic CEO was intimating something profound and important — connected devices are becoming inextricably tied to identity.

The Phillips toothbrush may seem like an extreme and possibly absurd example, but it’s pretty hard to argue that we are entering an age where all of our devices — even items we never would have called “devices” before — are Internet-enabled. Teslas, “smart” TVs like the Vizio E Series, and the seemingly dozens of activity-tracking wristbands are all widely available and popular, and deeply integrate Internet connectivity into their respective user experiences. But looking deeper, you can see something else is being baked into these new technologies. Namely, we’re leveraging our social (and some would say, “real”) identities to interact with these products, and building comprehensive profiles of not just our interests, political beliefs and relationship statuses, etc., but of our behaviors, too.

Take the Nike Fuelband. This popular activity-tracking wristband is a perfect early example of an identity-powered connected device. Once the user connects her phone to the Fuelband via Bluetooth, she can quickly login with her Facebook or Twitter ID and begin tracking her daily activity. And while the ability to register/login quickly — particularly on a mobile device — is inherently valuable to the user and the app developer alike, the user is really building out her own cohesive digital identity. She’s attaching her social profile to the activities (in this case running) that she actually participates in.

Nike and others are intuitively embedding the identity-enabled approach to their mobile products. Others, unfortunately, have yet to incorporate identity into their devices, choosing to ignore what will soon be an expectation and a reality on any device that connects to the Internet. Sirius XM, for example, misses a major opportunity in particular because its product is accessed on different devices. Disappointingly, when a user accesses Sirius XM in her car, she sends an activation code to authenticate the radio, rather than having the ability to register/login with her social network credentials — the same credentials she should (but currently is not able to) use when she listens to Sirius XM on her laptop. This is a maddening user experience and the type of severely flawed design that, had it come from designers at Apple, would have probably gotten a lot of people fired.

On the standard Web, meanwhile, the ubiquity of technologies like social login has already borne the fruits of identity. Companies looking to create authentic, trust-based relationships with their users are leveraging deep social profile data that goes well beyond the standard registration form fields of yesterday. And to be clear, trust-based means that privacy must be accounted for and the right controls must be in place before businesses start collecting and using this data. With the proper opt-in/out privacy controls in place, identity-defining traits like hometown, religious beliefs, relationships status, likes, activities and social graph can be available to marketers and used to drive hyper-relevant marketing campaigns.

As the connected-devices market continues evolving, identity will be a central part — a connective tissue — of how we interact with and manage our gadgets. The advantages of managing these devices with our social credentials extend far beyond the convenience of having one username and password for all of them. Rather, the amazing potential of an identity-powered, personalized ecosystem is what will push our connected devices to talk to each other. It may sound far off but imagine this: You log into your Nike Fuelband with Facebook Login and indicate that you’re going on a five-mile run. As you approach the four-mile mark, your Fuelband notifies your Nest thermostat (which you also manage via Facebook Login) that you’re nearly home so that just as you walk in the door, the temperature in your house is a brisk 63 degrees — an ideal temperature to help you cool down after a run.

The list of connected “things” is growing quickly, creating a network of devices that will be able to talk to one another via one central identity. And when our social profiles are connected to the activities we take part in, whether it is running, listening to music or brushing our teeth, the possibilities for personalization are nearly endless. Ultimately I believe that this type of personalization, when measured with healthy privacy controls, will result in real, tangible benefits for marketers and consumers alike.

Patrick Salyer is CEO of Gigya.

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