Tech Industry

Will Sun-Microsoft bile undermine Liberty?

Like dueling superpowers, the companies face two choices in promoting their respective Web security initiatives: detente or a state of constant conflict.

Like dueling superpowers, Sun Microsystems and Microsoft appear to be facing two choices in promoting their respective Web security initiatives: detente or a state of constant conflict.

Sun CEO Scott McNealy on Thursday renewed his push for the Liberty Alliance Project, a multi-company attempt to counter Microsoft's Passport identity-authentication system. In a keynote address at the Oracle OpenWorld conference in San Francisco, McNealy trumpeted the recent addition of major partners to the alliance.

He confirmed that American Express has joined the alliance--a move first reported by CNET He also noted Tuesday's arrival of AOL Time Warner, with its 32 million paying Internet subscribers.

Others are on the brink of joining.

"We are almost ready to commit, but we're not ready to talk about it yet," Hewlett-Packard spokeswoman Sherri Stuart said Thursday. The alliance effort "looks very promising," said Stuart, who expects an announcement to come next week.

A major Windows software company is also expected to join, Sun Chief Strategy Officer Jonathan Schwartz said this week.

But securing the fealty of corporate giants could become an issue if the constant mudslinging between Sun and Microsoft continues, especially if it hampers the deployment of better ID-authentication systems.

The Liberty Alliance hopes to create a standard way that computer users can establish their identities on the Internet, either through passwords or more sophisticated authentication technology. On Thursday, McNealy said the initiative also will include a standard way to record information such as ZIP codes or driving records.

Sun, one of Microsoft's bitter enemies, 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 ships with Windows XP and has 200 million subscribers.

In his address, McNealy continued his long tradition of attacking Microsoft and its "hair ball" of interlocking software products. McNealy criticized Microsoft's Passport authentication software, which eliminates the need to remember countless usernames and passwords, asserting that Microsoft wants to collect user information for its .Net services and then "sell it back to you."

"We have an alternative, and that's the Liberty Alliance," McNealy said.

Microsoft has taken a similarly strong stance against Liberty, but the new support from American Express undermines Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's earlier position that the alliance "has absolutely zero probability of mattering to the world."

Despite the acrimony, there could be room for Microsoft in the alliance if the group is genuinely a forum for creating an authentication standard and not a Microsoft-bashing club, said Adam Sohn, product manager of Microsoft's .Net platform strategy.

"It could really take two directions," Sohn said. "The original positioning of the Liberty Alliance was all anti-Microsoft: 'We're going to give you liberty from Passport.'"

Microsoft would be more interested, he added, "if it evolves into a bunch of technology companies and financial companies getting together to figure out how to solve significant business problems."

Microsoft could be a powerful ally in Liberty. It has existing technology and experience relevant to the authentication problem, millions of users and, most importantly, Windows--the most effective way to get software in the hands of ordinary computer users.

Technologically, detente is possible. A week before Liberty was announced, Microsoft said it would open up Passport, accepting alliances with other authentication systems and moving Passport to the industry standard Kerberos software.

The corporate maneuverings are an important part of the two rivals' attempts to secure their power by weaving their own authentication technologies into the fabric of the future Internet. Authentication is the gateway to the vaunted Web services universally proclaimed to be the future of the Net. And ultimately, Microsoft hopes to charge for the services that people tap into via Passport.

McNealy sees the race this way: "He or she who dies with the most rich and/or smart folks in your online directory wins." All companies are assembling such directories, and his goal is to ensure that different directories can interoperate between business partners, not create one gigantic database.

Sun has attracted some prime partners. Earlier members of the Liberty Alliance include Fidelity Investments, Bank of America, Sony, eBay, Sprint, Nokia, Cingular Wireless, NTT DoCoMo, American Airlines, United Airlines, VeriSign and General Motors.

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buzz American Express' backing for the Liberty Alliance came in spite of its earlier ties with Microsoft's .Net My Services initiative, which is closely tied to Passport. Microsoft had touted American Express' "partner support" for the plan, but the credit giant said it has no formal agreement with Microsoft or any plans to become part of the initiative.

Partnerships are only one part of the Liberty equation, though. The alliance hasn't released its specification yet, much less demonstrated software that shows Liberty in use or built the technology into anybody's Internet services.

Schwartz said the alliance expects to release more details on its plans in two or three weeks.