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Liberty Alliance, Passport still at odds

The companies on both sides want a uniform way to verify customer and employee identities. But rivalry and intellectual property worries are getting in the way.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Representatives from the two major initiatives to build a common infrastructure for verifying identity on the Internet said Tuesday that while a standard system is necessary, the sides may not be able to work together anytime soon.

Microsoft would like to guarantee interoperability between its Passport services and the future Liberty Alliance specification within a year, Brian Arbogast, vice president of Microsoft's .Net core services platform group, said at the RSA Conference 2002 here.

"Absolutely, we are committed to interoperability," he said. "Our customers need it and we will deliver it. If the goals of the Alliance are to create a seamless identity exchange and services on the Internet, that's something that we could get behind. We think there is a tremendous opportunity for us to work with the Liberty Alliance."

However, while the software giant has had talks with the Liberty Alliance, the company has not joined the group, because of concerns it has with the operating agreement.

"There are aspects of the current agreement that make us, and other technology partners, uncomfortable," Arbogast said.

Likewise, Liberty Alliance representatives balked on the question of collaboration.

When asked whether interoperability between Passport and the Liberty Alliance would happen within a year, Jonathan Schwartz, chief strategy officer for Sun Microsystems--one of the founding companies of the Alliance--wouldn't promise anything. He did stress that interoperability is an eventual goal.

"If you look at the people in the Alliance, they have a great interest in making sure their systems are interoperable," he said.

"It's not us against Microsoft," Schwartz added. "We want to build two things: standardization of identity and an extension of services. It's not how to displace the current services but how to make them interoperable."

The Liberty Alliance hopes to create a standard way for computer users to establish their identities on the Internet, through either passwords or more sophisticated authentication technology. Sun initiated the Liberty Alliance in September, drawing support from major airlines, security software companies and financial services companies.

The Alliance has yet to describe publicly how its technology will work, putting it far behind Microsoft's up-and-running Passport service, which Microsoft claims has 200 million subscribers.

Passport serves as an online identification system for many of Microsoft's Web properties, including Hotmail, the Microsoft Network and the company's developer Web sites. The system will also play a key role in Microsoft's forthcoming .Net My Services plan, a Web services initiative that is still in flux.

In a panel discussion, the Liberty Alliance dominated, with four members present compared with the lone Microsoft representative.

AOL Time Warner, another Liberty Alliance member, has its own authentication service, known as Magic Carpet. But the company intends to eventually harmonize its services with the Alliance, said John Paul, executive vice president of AOL's Web properties group.

"It's really about convenience and making it as simple as you can," he said. "We are about consumer choice. We don't want to say there is only one way to do something."

United Airlines, another member of the Liberty Alliance, looks forward to a common way of verifying identity as well.

"As a merchant on the Web, we would dearly love to get people from anywhere to buy from us," said Eric Dean, chief information officer for the airline. "We have a big loyalty program, and we would like to extend that program into other areas."

In the future, digital identity could also become a good security precaution for airlines, Dean added.