Twitter’s first mobile developer conference, Flight, took place yesterday in San Francisco, with the company unveiling their new Fabric platform for mobile app developers.
One aspect of Fabric that’s very interesting is Digits, a new Twitter-powered tool that lets users sign in to their party apps with just their mobile phone number.
“Building an onboarding flow that encourages users to sign up for your app can be challenging,” writes Twitter. “Many people are cautious to give up their entire social history to an app they just downloaded, and email and password logins as a last resort are cumbersome.”
“With Digits, you can make your onboarding flow dead simple for your users by enabling them to login and signup using their phone number – an identity that they already use everyday.”
Here’s how it works. Developers add “just a few lines of code” to their apps which embeds the Digits functionality. Now, when users go to access the app, instead of having to setup and remember another username and password, they simply enter their mobile number to receive a confirmation code that is sent to their phone. When they enter the code their account is confirmed and they can access the app.
Sounds great in principle, and if it works well this should give Twitter a much bigger slice of the online identity pie – they’re currently a long way behind Facebook and Google in that space.
But I do have a question or two. When you enter your phone number into Digits, where does it go? Meaning, is it stored on a list somewhere, and if so, whose list? Twitter’s? The third party app? Can they access and use that phone number? In other words, can they SMS or call you? Can they sell the number on to someone else? If you go on to complete a richer profile on the app, is your phone number connected to that?
In my experience people are rarely happy to give up their phone number without a major benefit. Making the ‘telephone’ box a requirement on any kind of online form has a hugely negative impact on conversion rates. And it’s easy to understand why – if somebody has your phone number, they can call you. And, increasingly, people don’t like to be called. I know I don’t. Giving up my email address is not something I take lightly, but I’d much rather share my email than my mobile number, which I almost never give out to third parties. And I don’t think that’s a particularly unusual stance. In fact, I think it’s entirely common. And I trust Twitter. I don’t trust many third party apps, however, and lots of folks out there don’t trust anybody online with their personal information.
Of course, if neither Twitter nor the third party application are storing the mobile numbers then this isn’t a problem at all (presuming they make that really clear in advance), and Twitter could be really on to something with Digits. However, if my phone number is going on to a list and somebody can access it and contact me via that information, I will never use Digits to sign up for anything. And I have a feeling I won’t be the only one.