Sun alliance targets Microsoft's Passport

Sun CEO Scott McNealy and corporate partners are to unveil an alliance for handling computer users' "digital identity"--an effort likely aimed at Microsoft's Passport.

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Sun Microsystems Chief Executive Scott McNealy and corporate partners will unveil an alliance Wednesday for handling computer users' "digital identity," an effort likely aimed at Microsoft's Passport system for storing personal information and controlling access to Internet sites.

Sun representatives declined to detail the alliance, but the target is clear. Sun and other Microsoft competitors have waged a steady campaign against Microsoft's Passport as a way to give people a digital identity on the Internet. Sun instead favors a neutral method that's not controlled by a single company.

A source inside Sun said the project is internally dubbed "Liberty" and remains in the early stages of development.

Sun has been hinting about what it would prefer over Passport. In a column on CNET News.com on Tuesday, Sun Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadapoulos called for "a universal identity system that doesn't play favorites...After all, passports for international travel are issued and honored by many different countries, not by a single entity. The same should be true when traveling the World Wide Web."

Passport is designed to store commonly requested information such as a login name, shipping address and credit card number--a service shaping up as a key point for controlling how consumers and businesses use the Internet.

In June, Chief Operating Officer Ed Zander exhorted programmers to keep Microsoft from controlling elements of the Internet, pinpointing Passport as one of the threats.

Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's senior vice president of corporate strategy and planning, accuses Microsoft of using its monopoly power to force Passport adoption, a move that will let Microsoft control "the point of entry for all the Net-based business" and eventually turn Microsoft into "a direct competitor" to companies with Web businesses.

Sun isn't the only critic. The Free Software Foundation, an organization opposed to the proprietary software practices of Microsoft and others, announced in July an effort called DotGNU to create an authentication system that competes with Passport but isn't controlled by Microsoft.

But Microsoft already is trying to outflank the attacks. Last week, the company announced its intent to let third-party companies use Passport while retaining the personal information of their members, though Microsoft itself still plans to handle the actual act of authentication.

One use of Java cards is in authenticating computer users' identity. The Java card makes it harder to fake an identity since it requires a person to have both a Java card and its password. Java cards are used in the Common Access Card identification system being distributed to the 4.3 million members of the U.S. armed forces, Sun said.

Java cards are a curious twist in the Sun-Microsoft battle. Traditionally, Sun has favored keeping information in large central servers that store a computer user's personal settings and software. Microsoft, on the other hand, puts more power in the PC. But with Sun's Java card approach and Microsoft's .Net-Passport strategy, the roles are reversed.

News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.