Mobile Tech's Bright Future Has a Dark Side

In the futuristic film noir "Blade Runner" (1989) set in Los Angeles in November 2019, only six years from now, Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, goes to his kitchen to pour a drink. The lights come on without Deckard saying a word.

In San Francisco this week at the Open Mobile Summit, mobility experts shared a similar rosy vision of mobile technology that predicts and delivers services people want without being told. It's a world where everything works seamlessly, everything is connected. No more choosing between Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or NFC. No more carrying around bulky smartphones (think: wearables). No more standing in checkout lines at retail stores.

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At the center of this world stands the customer. Mobility experts claim that every mobile innovation is geared toward making life easier for the customer. What about privacy? They say people are willing to give up personal information and opt-in to location tracking and push notifications if they're getting something of value in return.

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The Future of Mobility Is Bright -- Or Is It?

Like Blade Runner, the mobile technology story has a dark side, which didn't come about until late afternoon on Open Mobile Summit's first day. A panel of payment executives from American Express, The Home Depot and Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX) gathered to discuss the futuristic mobile wallet and what might drive mobile payments in the real world today.

From left to right: Stefan Happ at American Express, Malcolm Nunes at The Home Depot, Dodd Roberts at Merchant Customer Exchange and moderator Gloria Colgan, MD, Market Platform Dynamics.

These mobility realists didn't think much of the e-wallet: "Plastic remains en vogue," says Stefan Happ, senior senior vice president of online and mobile at American Express; "We really like cash," says Malcolm Nunes, senior manager of financial services at The Home Depot. Customers seem to be happy with current payment methods, they claim, so why change it?

Dodd Roberts, senior executive at MCX, warned about the dangers of moving too quickly toward mobility's great potential, a theme echoed in many earlier sessions. He reminded attendees that companies had bought into the ecommerce hype and got ahead of themselves, which led to massive online fraud.

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A mobile wallet also raises the sticky issue of customer data, Roberts adds. Let's say a third-party mobile wallet provider offers a digital coupon for The Home Depot and collects data on customers using it. Then the third-party provider can profit by going to a nearby Lowe's to sell services armed with the number (and perhaps identities) of The Home Depot customers in the area.

"As the market leader, a [mobile wallet] would only take market share from us," Nunes says.

When It Comes To Data Privacy, Talk Is Cheap

All the panelists launched into company lines that they would never do anything unseemly with customer data. American Express's Happ says big retailer relationships would fall apart if American Express mishandled customer transaction data. Happ's words sparked a confrontation rarely seen in a panel discussion; MCX's Roberts took exception with Happ's claims.

Roberts says he had worked for many years at Southwest Airlines, where customers paid for tickets with American Express cards. American Express, he says, used that transactional data to send apparently competitive offers to Southwest Airlines customers. While American Express's policy is to not leverage transactional customer data, the customer in this case is the merchant and does not apply to the end customer.

"Make sure to read the fine print," Roberts says.

In truth, companies already have swaths of customer data, know your buying habits and preferences, and have a pretty good handle on where you are, especially when you trip a geofence, where you're going and what you're going to do next based on historical patterns. The dark side of mobile technology and mobile payments is that it will light the fuse to even more consumer data collection.

This future most of all shares similarities with Blade Runner. In the movie, Deckard is an android -- or "replicant," in Blade Runner parlance -- but doesn't know it yet. He has waking dreams of a unicorn. At the end, a police officer leaves a unicorn origami at Deckard's apartment; the police already know everything about him, even his most personal thoughts.

It's a big price to pay for the convenience of having the lights come on.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at

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