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Commentary: A move toward open identities

The Sun Microsystems-headed Liberty Alliance represents the first attempt to create a truly open mechanism for handling identity over the Internet.

By David Smith and Daryl Plummer, Gartner Analysts

The Sun Microsystems-headed Liberty Alliance represents the first attempt to create a truly open mechanism for handling identity over the Internet.

Part of the group's goal is to exploit the large base of user identities already being managed by alliance participants such as Bank of America and certain cell phone companies. However, real integration of participants into the Liberty identity plan will depend on two things: making consumers aware of the existence of their identities, and letting those consumers know what those identities will allow them to do.

The Sun-led plan has its work cut out for it. Alliances of this kind are fragile to begin with, and this one must contend with Microsoft. Clearly, the alliance is directly targeted at Microsoft's Passport and HailStorm, and hopes to capitalize on the criticism Microsoft has received for supposedly not being open with its identity technologies.

But there are already signs that Microsoft has gotten wind of this plan and is trying to slow its momentum by announcing its intent to open Passport via Kerberos, an authentication system designed to enable two parties to exchange private information across an otherwise open network.

Furthermore, the absence of Microsoft, IBM and AOL means the alliance may lack the clout it needs to attain its goals. Should the alliance fail to entice IBM or AOL to either join or interoperate with it, conflict between competing identity plans will continue. Consumers should prepare for a long struggle and should demand that the Liberty Alliance and Microsoft both provide interoperability between identification plans and implementations.

Sun's motive in all this is clear: It wants to increase its visibility and restore its status as a visionary company. However, Gartner believes that this alliance does little for Sun in the latter respect, since the plan is very much reactive and targeted at opening up visions and technologies already being implemented.

See news story:
Sun reveals partners for online effort
Gartner does give Sun credit for driving an industry alliance for identity management. This approach is much more in line with what the industry needs, rather than an initiative led by a single company. The effect will be to drive Microsoft and any other efforts aimed at sharing information over the Internet into a community of cooperative businesses that focus on consumer needs.

It's too bad that some members of the alliance prefer not to be named at this early stage because it gives the impression that these shadow partners are less than committed to the grand effort. However, as the alliance gains strength and market visibility, Gartner expects that the unknown partners will emerge fully into public view. Otherwise, the alliance might suffer from public suspicions that some members have hidden agendas, and that would put off potential alliance members.

In the end, it may be that the primary effect of this alliance will be to ensure that Microsoft makes good on its claim to open up Passport. Many of the players in Liberty are also Passport partners and will use the Sun-led alliance as leverage.

(For a related commentary on Microsoft's new plans for Passport, see

Entire contents, Copyright © 2001 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.