Just about the time I was ready to call OpenID a total failure,
something clicked and, if you asked how I thought "OpenID was doing,"
I'd have to say that it's largely a success. But it certianly took long
enough to get here.
Lets back up and give some context.
OpenID is a system for distributing and delegating authentication for
web services to third party sites. Basically to the end user, rather
than signing into a website with your username and password, you sign in
with your profile URL on some secondary site that you actually log
into. The site you're trying to log in, asks the secondary site "is this
legit," the secondary site prompts you (usually just the first time,
though each OpenID provider may function differently here.) then you're
good to go.
Additionally, and this is the part that I really like about Open ID is
that you can delegate the OpenID of a given page to a secondary host. So
on tychoish.com you'll find the following tags in the header of the
<link rel="openid.server" href="http://www.livejournal.com/openid/server.bml" />
<link rel="openid.delegate" href="http://tychoish.livejournal.com/" />
So I tell a third party site "I wanna sign in with http://tychoish.com/
as my OpenID," it goes and sees that I've delegated tychoish.com's
OpenID to LiveJournal (incidentally the initiators of OpenID if memory
serves,) and LiveJournal handles the authentication and validation for
me. If at some point I decide that LiveJournal isn't doing what I need
it to, I can change these tags to a new provider, and all the third
party sites go talk to the new provider as if nothing happened. And it's
secure because I control tychoish.com and contain a provider-independent
identity server, while still making use of these third party servers.
The thing is that OpenID never really caught on. Though managing a
single set of authentication credentials, and a common identity across a
number of sites has a lot of benefits to the users, it never really
caught on. Or I should say, it took a very long time to be taken
seriously. There are a number of reasons for this, in my understanding:
1. Third party vendors wanted to keep big user databases with email
addresses. OpenID means, depending on implementation that you can
bypass the traditional sign up method. This isn't a technological
requirement but can be confusing in some instances. By giving up the
"traditional" value associated with sponsoring account creation,
OpenID seemed like a threat to traditional web businesses. There were
ways around this, but it's confusing and as is often the case a dated
business model trumped an inspiring business model.
2. There was and is some fud around security. People thought if they
weren't responsible for the authentication process that they wouldn't
be able to ensure that only the people who were supposed to were able
to get into a given account. Particularly since the only identifying
information associated with an account was a publicly accessible URL.
Nevertheless it works, and I think people used these details to make
people feel like the system isn't/wasn't secure.
3. There are some legitimate technological concerns that need to be
sorted out. Particularly around account creation. This is the main
confusion cited above. If someone signs up for an account with an
OpenID, do they get a username and have to enter that, or do we just
use the OpenID URL? Is there an email address or password associated
with the account? What if they get locked out and need to get into
the account but there's no email? What if they need to change their
OpenID provider/location at some point. These are legitimate
concerns, but they're solvable problems.
4. Some users have had a hard time groking it. Because it breaks with
the conventional usage model, and it makes signing into sites
simple it's a bit hard to grok.
What's fascinating about this is that eventually it did succeed.
More even than joy at the fact that I get to use OpenID, finally, I
think OpenID presents an interesting lesson in the eventual success of
emergent technological phenomena. Google accounts, flickr accounts, and
AIM accounts all provide OpenID. And although "facebook connect" is not
using OpenID technology, it's conceptually the same. Sites like
StackOverflow have OpenID only
authentication, and it's becoming more popular.
OpenID succeeded not because the campaign to teach everyone that
federated identity vis a vis OpenID was the future and the way we should
interact with web services, but rather because the developers of web
applications learned that this was the easier and more effective way
to do things. And, I suspect in as much as 80% or 90% of cases when
people use OpenID they don't have a clue that that's the technology
they're using. And that's probably an ok thing.
The question that lingers in my mind as I end this post is: is this
parallel any other optimistic technology that we're interested in right
now? Might some other "Open*" technology take away a strategic lesson
from the tactical success of OpenID? I'd love to see that.
Onward and Upward!