2006/12/15

Why AOL Should Go OpenID

I've argued beforethat identity is a building block -- an essential amino acid, if youwill -- for social networks.  It's far from the only thing you need,but without stable, persistent, verifiable identity, it's very hard tobuild relationships.  It's so important that there are specialized subnets in the human brain that recognize voices and human faces to help you remember people.

The digital world doesn't work like that.  Identifying someone onlineis hard.  Even solving the more limited problem of verifying that this person is the sameperson who you were socializing with yesterday online is not trivial. All social software has some mechanism for letting people verify someonline identity -- usually a user name and password.  Of course thatjust means that you have different user names for different services. In the new "Web 2.0" world, though, a primary rule is for services to be open and interoperate and play together. That's difficult if people have to remember that you're leetjedi67 onservice A and urtha52 on service B.  It's fine if you want to do that,but most people want to be themselves most of the time.  And ourinfrastructures don't allow for that.

Well, at least they didn't.  There's a remarkable convergence of usercentric identity systems happening right now.  At the lightweight end,basically everyone has converged on the OpenID standard.  This lets you be leetjedi.net everywhereif you want.  Or at least everywhere that supports OpenID.  The first,most practical benefit is that you won't need to fill out anotherregistration screen on most new services.  The more long term benefitis that you get to keep your identity and your reputation with you asyou move between services.

Of course none of this matters if companies don't adopt it, so what'sthe benefit for them?  Well, if their service involves a socialnetwork, it gains immediate access to both a network and an ecosystemof services which work with it.  The value of a social network grows quadraticallywith the number of users; the value increases linearly as thedifficulty in connecting two users drops.  Connecting two OpenID userswith is a lot easier than if you have to convince one or both to acquire a new identity.

This is the big value in promoting and leveraging a common standard. Even Microsoft is adopting open standards for their CardSpace identitysystem (and CardSpace and OpenID are talking cordially to each other,by the way).  So embracing the open network, leveraging the quadraticmultiplier in network value, and competing on value added services isreally the way to go.  Of course this means that you are opening upyour own services to more competition as well as cooperation).  SinceAOL has already committed to open web services, this is a logical nextstep.  Just playing around with ideas:  What would happen if every AIMuser name were OpenID enabled?  What if you didn't need to evenregister to use UnCut Video, AIM Pages, or AOL Journals

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