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The Latest Casualty of Smartphones Is the Key Card

An iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator in one device–that’s how Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007. Since then, smartphones have become so much more than that. They’ve rendered obsolete dozens of everyday objects and gadgets from calendars to address books, cameras, camcorders, calculators, voice recorders, GPS units, maps, flashlights, alarm clocks, timers, newspapers, plastic credit cards, and car keys. The smartphone not only functions as all these things, it makes them smaller, more convenient, and more powerful. Now, the smartphone is displacing plastic access cards and fobs in the workplace.

Key cards and fobs rely on RFID technology that’s more than 30 years old and they haven’t changed much since they were first introduced. While they may seem more high tech than a metal key, in some ways many are actually less secure. It takes just minutes for someone with the right hardware (which you can buy on eBay for a few hundred dollars) to clone the signal emitted by a plastic key card standing a few feet away from someone with a card in her pocket. Beyond that, key cards work for anyone holding the card. That means if an employee drops the card on the ground outside the building, anyone can pick up the card and walk inside. 

That’s to say nothing about the cost and time companies waste each year replacing lost cards. The average 40,000-person company loses 10,378 key cards/fobs per year. Each time an employee loses a card/fob she must email the appropriate person at the company, then a new card must be issued and associated to the employee in the company’s access software. And finally that card has to be physically transported to that employee anywhere in the world. In a multi-tenant office, the security administrator will also have to speak to the building security team, remove the old card credential from the access control system, and add the new one. Then of course there is the environmental impact of the millions of plastic key cards containing toxic electronics dumped in landfills each year, or worse yet making their way to the ocean. 

Enter the smartphone. The suite of antennas and radios on today’s phones make it possible to digitize access cards and store them in a digital wallet, similar to how credit cards have migrated into the Apple Wallet on the iPhone. Walk up to a door reader, tap your phone, and the door unlocks just like with plastic card or fob. Today’s phones also support powerful encryption technology and biometric technology to read a user’s fingerprint or facial patterns, making it possible to ensure the person holding the phone is the person authorized to enter a secure area. Taken together, digital access cards are more secure than their plastic predecessors. 

But when you talk to landlords and tenants ditching plastic key cards, they’re motivated as much by occupant experience as they are by improving security and reducing the overhead of cards. 

Landlords of some of the largest office buildings, like Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, AON Center in Chicago, and 4 Times Square in New York City are moving to smartphone access technology because it gives them a competitive advantage by improving the tenant and visitor experience. Think about the last time you visited an office. You probably had to sign in at the front desk, perhaps after waiting in line. Maybe you got a QR code that opened the turnstile in the lobby. But that QR probably didn’t work anywhere else. When upstairs meeting with your host, you likely had to rely on them to escort you everywhere and unlock every door including the ones on the way to the bathroom. 

Imagine being able to invite visitors to the building with a guest pass that lives on their smartphone. They gain access to your property and meet you on your floor, bypassing the cumbersome process of checking in with security and getting a temporary ID badge. This visitor experience is possible with a smartphone because the access credentials are digital, and therefore you can transmit them to a guest without someone having to physically give them the guest pass at the front desk in the lobby of the building. When their visit is over, the temporary guest credentials automatically stop working and they’re no longer able to access the property. 

Similarly, enterprises like WeWork are using smartphone access technology to improve their employee experience. Today, the process of booking a conference room at most companies is cumbersome. You have to pre-book the room on a shared calendar or in a meeting room software app. If people don’t show up to their meeting, the room is still listed as reserved. And if you find an empty room, you have to spend time at the start of the meeting booking it on your computer. Imagine instead walking into an empty room and it books automatically. And if you have a teleconference meeting on Zoom, the TV signs into your account and starts the meeting without anyone fumbling on their computer or with the TV remote. 

The smartphone didn’t just displace MP3 players, it improved on them. Today, with your phone you can stream any song ever made, not just the ones synced to your iPod. You can project that song to any Bluetooth-enabled speaker system wirelessly whether in the car or at a party. Services like Spotify intelligently recommend music you may like from a nearly infinite library. And if you hear a catchy song playing at the gym, Shazam will automatically discover what it is and put it in your music library. Similarly, smartphones aren’t just coming to replace your plastic key card, they are transforming what’s possible not only in access but in a wide array of smart building experiences that landlords and tenants alike are adopting to give them an advantage. 

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Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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