Sun and AOL Announce Passport Competitors

A growing feeling in the computer industry is that, where Microsoft is concerned, you should strike when the company is down. In light of the amount of negative press this year regarding Microsoft Windows XP, HailStorm (now called .NET My Services), and Passport, we shouldn't be surprised that the company's competitors—such as AOL, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and IBM—recently announced initiatives that will compete with Microsoft's plans for the .NET future. And two of these competitors, Sun and AOL, announced services that the companies hope will supplant Passport.

Sun's offering is code-named the Liberty Alliance Project, a coy name that seems to allude both to the notion that Microsoft's scheme is proprietary and to the recent terrorist attacks in the United States. Sun's chief technology officer (CTO), Greg Papadopoulos, says that the Liberty Alliance Project will enable a new future of smart Web services by allowing Web-site customization far beyond what's possible today. "Imagine a calendar service interacting with a map service so that your car can give you directions to your next appointment without being asked," he wrote in a recent guest editorial for CNET. "It could even interact with a traffic service to help you avoid delays due to road construction or stalled vehicles."

These types of services, of course, are what Microsoft has been promising with HailStorm and Passport. In Microsoft's view of the future, HailStorm and similar services will supply the underlying technology to enable more specific and powerful Web services—including services that Microsoft says we can't even imagine today. And Passport is the single sign-on (SSO) authenticator for the whole experience.

But Sun sees a future based on the Liberty Alliance Project, not Passport. In a press release announcing the project last week, the company describes the technology as "an open, federated solution for network identity—enabling ubiquitous single sign-on across multiple web sites, and eventually across multiple devices connected to the Internet. The service will provide distributed authentication, and open, platform-neutral network authorization, from any device connected to the Internet, from traditional desktop computers and cellular phones to credit cards, automobiles and point-of-sale terminals." Sun is opening the project to any companies that want to join, including Microsoft—which could open the possibility for Liberty Alliance Project servers and Passport servers to interoperate, perhaps transparently.

Differences between Passport and the Liberty Alliance Project are few. The most obvious difference is that Passport is already available and working; and Microsoft will improve the service dramatically in the coming months. But a second difference is more telling: Microsoft created Passport inhouse, without consultation from other companies. Although the company is suddenly open to the notion of interoperability, the reality is that Microsoft designed Passport for its own reasons and has no plans to open up the service to competitors. The technology that will make up the Liberty Alliance Project is, ostensibly, open to other alliance members' concerns, advice, and input.

In sharp contrast to the Liberty Alliance Project is AOL's Passport competitor, code-named Magic Carpet. With the largest installed user base in the online world, AOL clearly has a stake in a Web-services future. So the company announced this summer that it is developing a new SSO service that will integrate with its AOL Instant Messenger product in a manner similar to the way Passport integrates with Windows Messenger in XP. And like Passport, Magic Carpet will provide authentication services, as well as express checkout at compatible e-tailers. Most interesting about Magic Carpet is the way it seems to emulate the Passport playbook: Like Passport, Magic Carpet is a product from an industry giant that seems uninterested in working with other companies with similar concerns.

How you feel about Magic Carpet will probably depend on your attitude toward AOL. In many ways, AOL is the Microsoft of the online world—and AOL has an even worse reputation with users than Microsoft has. The idea that AOL would simultaneously track users' purchases and Web wanderings—which might raise privacy concerns among some consumers—is as easy to believe as are the privacy concerns surrounding Passport. Magic Carpet might fly with some of AOL's customers, but the world beyond AOL isn't likely to find the technology particularly compelling.

Because both the Liberty Alliance Project and Magic Carpet are still in the planning stages, we'll need to revisit these technologies when more information is available. But their mere creation shows that important industry players foresee a future of intelligent Web services. Whether Microsoft or another player will control this future, or whether intelligent Web services will be open to a wide range of competition, and, hopefully, interoperability, is clearly what's at stake in this early phase of the game.

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