Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Smartphone for all: the Guide is impersonating the Explorer. There's a problem there...

It’s only in writing or teaching something that we come to understand it. I’ve been guiding my two special needs Explorer’s using their iPhones for at least five years, but I only today realizes why the Guide role works — and why it might get harder.

I’ve put the key concepts into a book chapter (Smartphones for all) about Guide tools:

A Guide could implement many of the recommendations of this book by working on an Explorer’s smartphone every evening. You could take it in your hand and review emails, enter Calendar items, update Contacts, review Facebook Group membership and so on.

You could do that, but it wouldn’t be practical even if your Explorer lived with you. If your Explorer is an adult with their own residence it’s even less practical.

The Guide’s role is possible because of two features of today’s digital world. One is that information on a smartphone is commonly synchronized (actively duplicated) with a secure online store. The other is that it’s possible for a Guide to assume an Explorer’s identity if they know the Explorer’s digital credentials, typically their “user name” and password. These two features weren’t designed to make the Guide role possible; nobody at Google or Apple has been thinking about Guides and Explorers.

It’s easiest to understand this using an example like a Calendar. A capitol-C Calendar is how this book identifies a calendar viewed and managed by an application like the iPhone’s Calendar app ( A Explorer views today’s Events (appointments, scheduled things they need to do) on their iPhone, but the same Events are stored online. A Guide, using the Explorer’s credentials, can manage the Explorer’s Calendar Events using a web browser. Whatever changes the Guide makes will, typically within a few minutes, appear on the Explorer’s iPhone.

The ability to assume an Explorer’s identity is a tricky issue. Many children use their elderly parent’s credentials to their online banking, and bank staff know this very well, but it’s also explicitly forbidden. Google and Apple usually know a smartphone’s location and more or less know where a computer is located — having the same digital person in two places will trigger email warnings. For at least the next few years this will be manageable, but we Guides need to all encourage Apple and Google to support proxy users, either by better  ways to share things like Contacts and Calendars, or by formally supporting someone like a Guide. The good news is that aging parents are going to drive changes that will also support younger Explorers.

I’m pretty sure neither Google nor Apple have thought much about the needs of a special needs smartphone user, though Apple in particular has done quite a bit of work to support persons with motor, visual and auditory disabilities (“accessibility”). So they probably haven’t considered why hacking into someone’s email might be a feature, not a bug. I expect it will get harder for one “person” to be in two places at the same time; we might in time see more than warning emails.

There are several reasons for optimism though. When we leave our computer at home logged into our online accounts, and work with the same data on our smartphones, our digital self is in two places at once. A second reason is that the education market has similar needs for a supervising person to work with a student’s account data.

Most importantly however my generation are going to create large numbers of customers who are being supported by their children.

Current trends are encouraging. Banks are adding authorized surrogates and Google and Apple will likely do the same. Google already has the concept of an “Inactive Account Manager” to provide authorized access to a second user in the event of death, disability or disappearance. Apple has the concept of the iCloud “Family” for sharing media and locations. Both Apple and Google support some sharing of things like Calendars.

We have multiple market needs and the outlines of several solutions. So I think the ethical impersonation that allows me to be a Guide is going to go legit. Maybe this blog post will help a bit, and I’ll try to get something like this into a bigger forum. I’m hoping the book will help a bit too. Know anybody at Apple or Google who wants a copy?

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