The All Knowing Digital Personal Assistant

Account AggregationThese days there are many web sites and programs that help organize aspects of our lives. They help to aggregate a particular aspect such as bank accounts, phone services, instant messaging, email, calendars, passwords and more. These sites or applications bring together diverse accounts into one convenient location. However, in return for the convenience we need to hand over personal information so the service can log in to various sites automatically. How much risk do we take by using these integration tools? For something like a feed reader where we don’t have to provide anything personal, there is not much risk. However, that all changes when it comes to money, email, and so much more.

One integrator for handling money is Mint. To effectively use Mint to track current financial status, one has to register all bank accounts, loans, mortgages, etc. with the site. Once this information is registered, they pass this information off to yodlee.com which then accesses the financial institution web sites, logs in as you, and pulls down the available financial data. In order to log in, they need to know the account numbers, passwords, and challenge questions. This is quite a bit of information to pass up to a third party just to be able to have all available assets and debt displayed in one location. The need to give up all this information requires a leap of faith that the site has tight security and is actively working against hackers and others that would love to access the data. Can Mint employees, or Yodlee employees freely roam the database containing the financial information? Yet even with the potential risks, their is an attraction to having the ever growing set of accounts trackable in one place.

With instant messaging (IM) it is common that one group of friends will be on Google, others on Yahoo or AOL. Trying to keep all the IM clients open can be cumbersome. Web services like Meebo help to bring these various services together. A similar problem occurs for email. Work, home, school, and many other email addresses accumulate over time. Being able to check email from all accounts at the same time is a substantial time saver. Similarly the various social networks such as MySpace and Facebook also should be combinable into one unified interface. Apparently applications like Digsby, currently in limited Beta, are trying to integrate IM, email, and social networking.

Google’s Grand Central allows one phone number to ring every phone you own. Very convenient in these days of frequent moves, and multiple phones. It even allows for answering on one phone, and then transferring to another. The downside of the current implementation is that it doesn’t conveniently handle transferring to oversees phones. A service like Skype can be used in combination with Grand Central to handle the forwarding to a single overseas phone. The idea of a single phone number to give to everyone is a great idea, but is limited by today’s notion of country code, area code, and phone number. The country code and area code these days are only applicable to the time at which the number was originally assigned. It quickly loses importance after a few years, and a few moves. Since the world is shrinking, or as some would say flattening, maybe we’ll see phone numbers move in the direction of personal identifiers rather than location markers.

There is a trend to bring everything everything together for convenience, but today’s implementations are far from ideal. Soon we will need sites to combine all our aggregation sites together. This way our money, social interaction, phones, and everything else would be available at once. But once again, how much risk do we take on by having to release or combine so much information about us into one location?

What are you favorite aggregators? And what other areas need to be conveniently placed into a one stop digital personal assistant?  Are you willing to give up all your passwords to a web site, or would you prefer a application running on your computer? What makes you trust one over the other?

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