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This tempest belongs in a teapot

MarketSoft CTO Chris Bergh says the rivalry between Sun's Liberty Alliance and Microsoft's Passport over online authentication misses the larger issue: Internet identity.

How many doors do you walk through a day? What if you had to pull out your driver's license to pass through each one--and write down your address, hand over a dime and whisper a special password?

That's what it's like doing any kind of business on the Internet, from buying a trinket on eBay to automating your supply chain. Everywhere you go, you're asked to identify yourself with your name, address, user ID, password or credit card number and often a whole lot more. Privacy concerns aside, it's a lot of wasted time typing.

All this wasted time and energy will only get worse as the Web offers more and more valuable services instead of static pages. Two rival initiatives--Microsoft's Passport and the Sun Microsystems-sponsored Liberty Alliance--are arising to address the issue of Internet authentication by providing a single sign-on to multiple Web sites, services and Internet-connected devices.

Forty million online U.S. consumers automatically enrolled in identity services will use them to access an average of three Web sites each month by the end of 2003, according to Gartner.

The usual Microsoft-as-monopoly complaints are cropping up around Passport, and the Liberty Alliance is assuming the underdog role. I say the holy war is just a tempest in a teapot. No disrespect to Microsoft (my former employer), but the company is just posturing against the inevitable commoditization of identity. So is Sun.

Yes, Microsoft wants a piece of the action every time a buyer and seller come together online. It also wants to guide computer users to its own subscription Web services and to the Web services developers create with Microsoft tools. Sun wants to prevent Microsoft from steamrolling it in those same markets and would propose an identity standard, not a product.

As always, the focus is on the horse race: Who will win? The answer is that the question is irrelevant. There won't be just one identity service. There will be hundreds if not thousands of identity services. It won't matter whose identity service you use any more than it matters which ISP you use.

All that matters is that you can read my e-mail and I can read yours, even if you're on a Mac and I'm on a Dell. The only winner will be the Internet protocol that sews identity services together.

I'm not saying Microsoft and Sun will give up identity ownership without a fight. As with many "open" protocols, Microsoft and Sun will attempt to do what Cisco Systems did with routers: create their special "super" identity protocols to make single sign-on work just a little bit better on their technology.

But it's different with identity. Identity is less complex than routers and more like simple HTML. It is what it is, and there's just not a lot of innovation you can do with it. A Web page says the same thing in both Microsoft's browser and Netscape's. In the end, a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) spec will tie identity services together and make identity ubiquitous, transparent and refreshingly boring.

It will operate on multiple services, and nobody will care what's going on in the background. Instead of a single identity system, there will be a federation of federations, just as the Internet is a network of networks.

Identity is bigger than any one company.

Likewise, a person is bigger than any one identity. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle said in "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet," individuals will have multiple personae on the Internet--one for work, one for online shopping, one for banking and more for their personal interests. All of these "masks" will be founded in one true, master identity, which will live everywhere, and in several transparent services. Every identity will point to the same credit card, if you like, or every identity will point to a different one. Likewise with billing address and shipping destination.

So go ahead and sign up for Passport, the Liberty Alliance and even AOL's Magic Carpet. It's six of one and half a dozen of the other. A Camry will get you to the same destination as an Accord. It just doesn't matter.