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Tech Industry

Year in review: Who are you?

Microsoft, Sun and AOL Time Warner fight to control online wallet and authentication software. The winner will have a hand in nearly every transaction conducted online.


Who are you?
Microsoft and Sun Microsystems want your identity.
Passwords have littered the computing landscape, and computer users' brains, for decades: Was this one the name of my pit bull, my boyfriend or my guppy? But in 2001, companies realized passwords might be a commodity.

Microsoft began hitting the accelerator with Passport, a digital-identity setup that stores people's passwords, credit card numbers and addresses and lets them use all affiliated sites and services without having to enter new information every time. Microsoft acquired the technology from Firefly in 1998 and launched its own service a year later. Passport has since become an integral part of the company's .Net vision of Web services and subscription software.

The company this year began promoting Passport heavily with Windows XP and now has more than 200 million Passport accounts through services such as Hotmail and MSN Messenger.

But antitrust, privacy and security concerns dogged Passport. Microsoft began retreating, ultimately announcing a version of Passport that could cooperate with other authentication systems.

Then came the bombshell. Arch foe Sun Microsystems whipped up the competing Liberty Alliance Project. Liberty had scant technology but prestigious recruits such as American Airlines. And biggies AOL Time Warner, American Express, MasterCard and Hewlett-Packard eventually signed on.

Passport got off the blocks first, but Liberty is picking up speed, forcing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to snack on his eloquent initial assessment of Liberty's chances: "absolutely zero probability of mattering to the world." At year-end, detente could be near, as Microsoft discusses conditions for its entry into Liberty--chiefly, that Sun stop using the project as a soapbox for Microsoft derision.

With a technology this central to how everyone uses the Net, though, more corporate wrangling is assured. So for now, it's still: rottweiler, goldfish or girlfriend?

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 Will Passport inject risk into XP?
Avi Rubin, researcher, AT&T Labs
August 10, 2001

 Challenging Microsoft's .Net initiative
Marge Breya, VP of Sun Microsystems' Sun One Division
August 27, 2001

The HailStorm hits the fan
"I'm not sure how many people are going to be comfortable with Microsoft being the driver's license issuer for the Web," says one analyst, as the company unveils a new version of Passport in a .Net support package called HailStorm.
March 19, 2001
The XPedient way to win customers
Part Two, in which your computer asks: Are you sure you don't want to sign up for Microsoft's Passport service? (For Parts Three, Four, Five and Six, see previous sentence.)
June 21, 2001
Big Brother Bill is watching
A privacy group alleges that Passport is really a scheme to "profile, track and monitor millions of Internet users." Orwellian paranoia? Or legitimate fear?
August 15, 2001
Mr. Gates goes to Washington
Or at least sends some reps on Passport's behalf: His company heads to D.C. at the behest of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a consumer advocacy group. Agenda? Privacy.
August 22, 2001
Playing well with others
Feeling the heat, Microsoft decides to let Passport share credentials with other authentication services.
September 20, 2001
Sun steps up
Microsoft's enemy Sun Microsystems spearheads an effort to produce a Passport alternative. General Motors, Bank of America, Nokia and RealNetworks join in.
September 26, 2001
Passport's "Wallet" service open to pickpockets
Microsoft acknowledges a major security flaw in the Passport service that keeps track of data used by e-commerce sites: a hole that leaves people's financial info wide open.
November 2, 2001
It's starting to look like a ballgame, folks
Big hitter AOL signs on to Sun's Liberty Alliance effort. Don't head for the parking lot yet.
December 4, 2001
The invective begins to fly
AmEx hops on the Liberty bandwagon. Sun's McNealy: Microsoft wants to gather your ID info and "sell it back to you." Microsoft's Ballmer: Liberty "has zero probability of mattering to the world." Grrrr.
December 6, 2001
How to win friends and influence people
Microsoft starts offering cash to e-shoppers who use its Passport Express Purchase service.
December 10, 2001
Passport leads to pass out
When Microsoft requires users of its Zone gaming site to register with Passport, the site zones out, leaving gamers in the cold and the reliability of the ID service in question.
December 12, 2001

• New Sun software to support Liberty
• Giants team for wireless Web via Java
• MasterCard joins AOL, Sun in Net alliance
• Commentary: Identity services on the march
• Web services: The new buzz
• Commentary: A move toward open identities
• Privacy group details complaints against XP
• Commentary: Passport needs better privacy
• IE 6 central to Passport privacy boost
• Ballmer talks .Net; McNealy scoffs