The electronic signatures industry is moving toward mobile software, but experts say any chance of killer-app status is at least a few years away.
Legally binding electronic signatures became popular in the early 2000s after Congressional passage of the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act -- better known as ESIGN -- which defined an electronic signature as "an electronic sound, symbol, or process, attached to or logically associated with a contract or other record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record." Initial technologies focused on public-key infrastructure requiring security certificates to be passed among users, and on non-binding signatures for applications such as package delivery and sales receipts. But more recent applications deploy central servers and click-to-sign methods that reduce upfront costs for businesses.
EchoSign and DocuSign are two of the biggest companies in this niche. Both are already dabbling in mobile versions of their software with mixed results. Long contracts with dozens of places to sign aren't suited for smartphones, but there is increasing adoption of such technology for situations where only a few signatures are needed or where people need to sign off on changes to existing documents, they say.
EchoSign CEO Jason Lemkin says 6 or 7 percent of his 18,000 customers are already using some form of mobile access, with 90 percent of those doing so through a Research In Motion BlackBerry device. Most of the other 10 percent use EchoSign's Apple iPhone software which debuted last summer. EchoSign is planning an iPad version for this summer, while customers on other mobile devices can access the software through a browser. DocuSign last month announced its own software customized for Google Android and Microsoft Windows Mobile, and plans to announce an Apple iPhone version from partner company Smart Mobile Solutions by the end of this month. Smart Mobile is also has a BlackBerry edition in beta form. (Another major player, AssureSign, did not respond to requests for comment and does not list any mobile versions on its web site.)
EchoSign's Lemkin says several dozen software companies already use his company's API, mostly for formulaic contracts. "Far more routine contracts are signed than million-dollar contracts. How many times have you bought a house versus how many times have you bought a subscription to something? The vast majority of contracts can easily be signed on a mobile devices," he asserts. "The future is to be able to dynamically generate a contract on a mobile device and be able to send it out for signature," and the upcoming iPad version has the beginnings of such features, he adds. EchoSign is also working with Google, Oracle, and Salesforce.com for packaged applications.
DocuSign's Tom Gonser, vice president of product strategy, is also a believer in mobile signatures but has a more cautious opinion of industry adoption. "It's been happening for a while but it hasn't really been optimized," he says. "You'll see us continue to add capabilities that you can do through the generic browser," such as more layers of authentication. "They want to be able to do this on a PC in their office, and they want to be able to do this on the golf course." Gonser cites AIG, Fidelity, and John Hancock as customers integrating DocuSign into money management applications -- but not yet doing mobile versions.
Another example is Expedia.com, which uses DocuSign to register hotels for its network. Gene Harden, director of lodging, says hotels need to sign an 11-page contract containing 500 fields for the agreement itself, a rate sheet, and bank payment forms. "I would say it's way too early for mobile. We're still doing everything by email. ... You've got to sit down and fill it out."
"It is relatively new compared to the whole idea of these signatures itself. It's really limited so far in its use but that could change," adds Gartner analyst Gregg Kreizman. There's also the potential for a major roadblock -- what happens if a customer alleges in court that his signature shouldn't count because a smartphone presentation of a contract was unclear? Kreizman doesn't have the answer, but says less than 1 percent of 2009's overall $123 million electronic signatures market comes from mobile applications. Gartner is not even making any growth predictions yet.
Lemkin, Gonser, Harden, and Kreizman all agree on one thing -- that people want to get their customers to sign contracts as quickly as possible, and that mobile devices could help in that quest. However, exactly when that option will become mainstream remains open for debate.
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