Commentary: Smart keychains beat the smart wallet

I still love it when a company manages to change years of high-tech hype virtually overnight. Case in point: the mighty Mobil Corporation and a simple device called the Mobil SpeedPass.

I still love it when a company manages to change years of high-tech hype virtually overnight. All it takes is a great product that clicks with the right users, and the rest is history. Case in point: the mighty Mobil Corporation and a simple device called the Mobil SpeedPass--a "smart" keychain used at Mobil and Exxon gas stations to make buying gas as simple as the Amazon One-Click system.

In the opposite camp, Microsoft has been promoting the concept of a "Smart Wallet" for about as long as I can remember. With this magical wallet, cash would be a thing of the past, medical records, dental charts, virtually everything about you would be contained in the wallet on some tiny chip. With it you could manage your banking, your children's college tuition payments, and of course carry around phone numbers and addresses for every person you've ever known.

But when I thought more about it, the Smart Wallet was really another "ultimate" all-in-one convergence device. And if tech history has taught me anything, it's that in the age-old convergence vs. divergence debate, divergence wins again and again. Which is why Mobil and its do-one-thing-well keychains are taking the lead in personal data storage, and why the Smart Wallet, should it ever appear, will be about as useful as 3Com's failed Audrey tablet PC.

Think small
Instead of trying to be all things to everybody (convergence), Mobil smartly decided to be very useful to its busy gas-buying customers. The aptly-named SpeedPass allowed users to wave the barrel shaped keychain device at the pump and move on. No typing in codes, no searching for your bank card. Just wave your keychain, fill the tank and head on out. To date, the Agate Technologies recently unveiled a sleek line of keychain USB hard drives capable of carrying up to 64MBs of data. Plug the drive into any PC's USB port, and you have instant access to documents, music and photo files, or any back-ups to files you can't afford to lose. For Palm users, the Northstar MemorySafe lets you back up and restore your Palm with a similar device just for handhelds.

Heavy keychains
Of course the biggest problem will soon be having too many smart keychains to haul around, which is why I think McDonalds was wise to partner with Mobil and leverage its already established user base. You can already feel the coming battles for the keychain as exclusive partnerships and distribution networks will begin to merge and grow.

There's also the question of just who this technology appeals to. A number of female friends of mine blanched at the idea of carrying around a wad of keychains. They liked their wallets and ATM cards, and noted that waving a keychain at a pump meant having to take the keys out of the ignition, when it was just as easy to use an ATM card without disturbing the keys. As one friend put it "I think this will only appeal to men. They like lots of keys."

While this and other issues begin to shake out during the next few years, I do think that the big product down the line may very well be the smart keychain holder. The smartness won't come from chips and data, but from well thought out compartments and storage handling for all our smart devices. Think of it as the product that simply holds all that smart technology, which in my book is what a Smart Wallet needed to be all along.

Alice Hill was VP of Development and Editorial Director of CNET.com. She regularly writes about technology for ZDNet and Computer Shopper magazine and helps companies abroad build better websites. Her favorite topics include Buying Mistakes Beginners Make, Becoming a Virtual Merchant, Why Geeks Love Scooters and Do You TiVo? She welcomes your comments and *e-mails* at alice@alicehill.com.