Deja Vu it's 2002

Over the past six weeks I’ve noticed editors in the tech space looking to make a horse race out of OpenID and Facebook Connect. Of course this makes for some interesting bylines and helps energize the public versus private identity discussion but the comparison is as misplaced at the one in 2002: Wi-Fi versus Bluetooth.

Back in 2002 the press, fresh off the browser wars, was looking for a new race to call. Personal wireless was new, confusing and there were many standards vying for the hearts of engineers so it looked like a good candidate. Bluetooth was way over-hyped, under-delivering on it’s promise of ubiquity while a newcomer was making huge in-roads in capturing major design wins in the notebook market.

The US tech press was deeply familiar with the PC industry and had long ignored major developments in the mobile phone market. Bluetooth was tearing up design wins in phones, which was delivering scores more users, but the press kept “the race” going – at least for a few years. Then all of sudden someone finally figured out Wi-Fi was really about connecting devices to an IP network and Bluetooth was solely for connecting mobile devices to one another and the race was unceremoniously cancelled. Bluetooth did not kill Wi-Fi and neither did the other; they have in fact lived happily ever after.

A few weeks ago Facebook released Facebook Connect and the coverage was deja vu to me. The technology includes several nice features but the one many in the press have mistakenly focused on is its “portable” identity. Not only is this feature not the killer feature, it is not really portable at all – you can use your Facebook credentials to log into other sites. And of course since only Facebook has the rest of your “identity” I’d expect it will be a long time they let it go much of anywhere. So your Facebook identity is anything but portable.

However, by focusing on identity, the press have looked to compare Facebook Connect and OpenID. And with comparisons naturally the question is asked, “who will win?” So while the press looks to make a horse race of it, to me I have to say the two technologies are not comparable at all.

With OpenID, the user gets to decide where they would like to register their identity. There is no central place or single site where someone can do this and in fact there are dozens of these “relying” parties. While not part of today’s specifications, I can easily imagine the OpenID initiative providing mechanisms where I might be able to choose to include and exclude a multitude of information that can be selectively shared with sites that implement the technology. And since there will be competition, I can see some relying parties offering full “data portability” where others might take a more restrictive approach.

Facebook Connect is an attempt to expand the value of Facebook as the primary portal of the net generation. Both the social and monetary value of Facebook I might add. OpenID is the real deal, at least on paper, when it comes to portable identity. Being an standards effort there is still much work left to achieving that promise; again a reminder of Bluetooth in 2002. Where Bluetooth got usability right it has thrived (like in mobile phones and handsets) but where they were distracted it has essentially died (like the PC market except for a small selection of keyboards and mice).

My definition of a good comprise is one where neither party feels completely happy. When a technology is developed that selfishly enriches a single party, one entity is happy but ultimately everyone loses. Facebook Connect is fantastic and will provide value to those who’s lives center around the social utility site. OpenID is confounded with compromise but is best positioned to become the portable credentials of the web. It will be fun to watch both technologies thrive and live a life happily ever after.