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Liberty Alliance: No Passport Needed

Sun teams with more than 30 companies to develop digital ID.

Sun Microsystems and more than 30 other companies last week unveiled plans for a personal identification system that they hope will prime the pump for pervasive E-commerce. The group, called the Liberty Alliance, will compete with AOL Time Warner and Microsoft; all are trying to become, in essence, identity managers, hosting private data about customers in the name of convenience. But the vision--proving that users are who they say they are and ensuring that their credit and personal information follow them wherever they go, on any device, so services and purchases can be completed with one click--has remained largely unrealized.

At stake is control of online transactions in the years ahead. Will AOL Time Warner, with its 31 million subscribers, be able to make "Magic Carpet" the ubiquitous user-identification standard? Will the Sun alliance, which plans to design its Liberty Alliance standard without ceding administration of customers' identities to any single company, fulfill an unmet need? Can Microsoft leverage its near-monopoly in desktop operating systems to sign up millions of customers for its Passport services? And can any of them convince consumers a digital identity is in their best interest--or even desirable?

Tony Scott

Services such as Liberty could prove valuable to General Motors' customers, CTO Scott says.
Tony Scott, chief technology officer for information systems and services at General Motors Corp., sees a big opportunity for GM--a charter member of the alliance--to collaborate securely with other businesses and consumers through the new service. "Look at the model for success on the Web so far," Scott says. "It's through federated standards. We think that's the success model here."

Identity services could prove valuable to GM's customers, Scott says. After a car accident, for instance, GM's OnStar vehicle-tracking system could trace the location of the driver, contact his doctor, and have critical medical information beamed to the car.

"You don't want to fish around in a wallet for the secret handshake for the right emergency information," says Scott, adding that all the user's personal information would be stored in separate databases and be aggregated only as necessary.

Microsoft has signed up about 165 million users for Passport, mostly by requiring an account to use its software services, such as Hotmail and instant messaging, and MSN Web sites. The vendor hopes to sign up many more. Windows XP, due next month, continually prompts users to register with Passport, and requires that users have an account to use the operating system's instant-messaging and other features. But Gartner VP and research director Avivah Litan says more than 70% of the 25 million U.S. users of Passport don't even realize they have it.

Meanwhile, Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group, says Sun may have entered the fight too late. "It's awfully late in game to be talking about starting to develop a standard," he says. "Microsoft and AOL are already well under way."

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