keys, money, and mobile phone: the holy trinity

Every day when you prepare to the leave the house, you are confronted with a decision that market analysts and designers drool over, namely, what items do you take with you out of the house?

Let’s model this. Presumably you have already in your life accumulated an impressive array of objects. They may fill a whole house, a small apartment, or even just a suitcase. But everyday, from that vast collection, you only really consider taking a small percentage of the objects with you out the door.

Screen shot from Jan Chipchase: Our cell phones, ourselves licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

And from that small percentage that receives consideration, there is an even smaller number of objects that actually make the cut and wind up on your person or in your bag. Moreover, during the course of the day, an even more select number of items are actually used. These objects, these elite chosen few, are objects of vast interest, not only to handbag designers and the like, but also for anyone interested in understanding human nature.

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The interesting thing about all the possible selectively chosen objects, according to this thought-provoking TED talk by Nokia researcher Jan Chipchase, is that, regardless of age, gender, or class, there are three universal must-have items that almost every person decides to bring with them. These objects, toted more frequently worldwide than anything else, are keys, money, and a mobile phone. If that’s not a holy trinity, I don’t know what is.

The Items I Carry – Daily, photo by drewvigal licensed under CC BY-NC. For a fascinating photostream, check out the Flickr tag theitemswecarry.

These three sacred objects, as Jan helps explain, are indispensable for people worldwide because they address our most basic needs for survival. In other words, they satisfy the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, namely food, shelter, and security. Keys are your path to shelter (and in some contexts, transportation), money is your answer to food, and a mobile phone provides a link to friends and family, basically the people you can rely on in moments of distress.

Now this is where the holy trinity really gets interesting. If we are always carrying the minimum three objects, would it be possible to develop just one device that could serve the function of three? Could we have one device that replaces keys, money, and phone?

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Ok, we already know that mobile phones are already the tool of the 21st century (pdf). In some countries, for example, minutes on a mobile phone can be sent to another phone, and in this manner bartered, traded, or shared like cash. In these cases, mobile phone operators can function as human ATMs, payroll services, distribution points for charity (i.e. Pyramid of Peace), and invaluable source of news. Here two objects from the trinity, money and phone, have already become intertwined.

There are of course more examples of the phone/money convergence. In Germany, the Deutsche Bahn is experimenting with cash-less mobile phone transactions in their beta of a new ticket payment system, Touch&Travel. The idea is before you board the train, you touch your phone to a sensor, or “touchpoint”, located along the track. The device notes your journey’s starting point. Then, once you arrive at your destination, you disembark and again touch your phone to a sensor. Your route is calculated by Deutsche Bahn, and you are sent a bill electronically.

As a matter of fact, phone/money mash-ups are ubiquitous in Japan and South Korea. For example, many of you are probably are familiar with the new barcode systems that offer unlimited possibilities to link internet services (including online banking and Paypal) to “real-world” actions, like vending machine purchases or ordering a Big Mac

All the remains in the convergence of the holy trinity is the key/phone integration. This convergence could come in the form of a lock system whose keys can also be stored in a phone. Such a technology is not hard to imagine. There are already quite a few systems that rely on electronic or digital keys, and rigging a phone to unlock these locks no doubt won’t be too much of an engineering hurdle.

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With the above examples in mind, do you think it’s possible in ten years (or even less!), that we will have a universal device? A mobile money/key/phone? Is it possible that with just one device, all the indecision faced when leaving the house will disappear? How will such a universal product be received? And what will it mean to us as users to own, and inevitably be dependent upon, such devices? It seems a mobile money/key/phone could lead to the most streamlined handbag in the world. On the other hand, it could quite possibly become the biggest liability and security vulnerability in modern history.


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  1. Jim Chen · March 24, 2008

    “The three things I use the most
    Keys, cash, and mobile phone
    Just took the last train for the coast
    The day the music died.”

    With apologies to Don MacLean for snagging and changing the words to “American Pie.” Where’s that Creative Commons license when you need it?

  2. thornet · March 24, 2008

    @ Jim.

    Ha ha! Classic (your rendition…and the original song too, I guess).

    “The three things that I use the most,
    my keys, some cash, and a tele-kiosk…”