Early Adopter: Autograph a Book or Sign a Permission Slip–All Electronically at the DocuSign Hackathon

It’s a little surprising that even in today’s world of decoded genomes, retina scanning and 128-bit encryption that the doddering old signature continues to plod along as the primary method of identity verification.

But the concept of signing is about as ingrained in our culture as the handshake. We sign on the dotted line. We sign here. We sign there. We sign our life away.

And even DocuSign made its name porting that oldest of identity verification methods over to the digital world.

But last weekend, the software-as a-service provider did something it had never done before.

The company filled coolers with beer, rented a nacho machine and opened its doors to a bunch of hackers who would vie for $25,000 in prize money to build new uses for an old service.

That’s because the world has changed in the eight years since DocuSign started, and business services aren’t the only way forward now, at least according to Founder and Chief Strategy Officer Tom Gonser.

“From a strategic perspective, we are going to put a lot more effort on the consumer side of this business than we have in the past,” he said.

But according to it’s not really a problem of ink.

It’s one of paper.

Gonser explained: “In replacing paper, you have to integrate with any system that paper interacted with.”

And taking the paper out of the equation isn’t easy.

Paper is interoperable. And it’s the most readable file format–at least by humans.

So, to get its hands on more consumers makes sense for DocuSign, considering a good portion of them now carry touchscreens around in their pockets and a little white fob allows anyone to accept credit card payments, complete with signature.

The hackathon is DocuSign’s way to get a bunch of coders–who haven’t spent their lives thinking about enterprise software–together to solve the problems that modern living has with the decidedly unmodern signature.

When I stopped by, groups were picking away at projects that seemed like a pretty good cross section of all the places signatures enter our lives.

There was a plug-in for Google’s Gmail, a budding solution for signing NDA’s on the fly, a developer who wanted to end the paper permission slip for school activities and even someone trying to enable authors to digitally sign individual copies of e-books.

While the overall winner turned out to be the developer who worked on a solution for signing petitions, every one of the ideas seemed like a better alternative to what goes on today.

Here’s a quick video with Evan Jacobs, a former developer for Amazon, whose hackathon entry–Kindlegraph–allows authors to send a personal message and verifiable signature to an individual Amazon Kindle e-book reader.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik