OpenID needs a killer-app

openid_big_logo_textThe OpenID community is buzzing with board elections coming up next week. With Facebook and Google drawing attention with their simultaneous recycling of old news (MySpace’s PR person should have been fired long ago for being so bluntly left out), there is growing concern in that community for the future relevance of an open, rather than a commercially controlled, identity. Dave Winer thinks the commercialists will kill it by over-complexity. Chris Messina believes that better usability and branding could jumpstart OpenID. 

Personally I see no reason right now why Facebook won’t pull it off. The main reason is that they have a full turnkey system in-place. As a publisher, I don’t need to adopt an OpenID library, access a few Contacts APIs (standards are still only making baby steps) and then integrate some form of postback to an aggregator. Facebook gives me the whole monty, on a very large network provider, and a simple WordPress plugin can do all that work.

That’s where an open community lags behind a concentrated commercial effort – tying it all together to a killer-app. An open content platform? well, that was boringly nice, until someone connected it to a killer-app need of an anyone-can-edit-encyclopedia and suddenly everyone’s using wikis. Firefox did not become popular because it’s open, but rather because its openness allowed open features, such as greasemonkeying and tons of extensions. Where is the OpenID equivalent? 

Personally I think blog widgets, and in particular commenting platforms, can be exactly it. The blogosphere is decentralized enough for an open product to compete fairly against Facebook’s push. There are already commercial products making use of it, such as Disqus. Now just decentralize that too, and let every OpenID user assemble their own Disqus page from an OpenID-based commenting plug-in. If you don’t like that, find another potential killer-app (David Recordon’s browser-based identity has good potential too), just don’t assume that an open technology alone makes any difference to anyone beyond the techies.


3 responses to “OpenID needs a killer-app

  1. Based on feedback from the OpenID Content Provider Advisory Committee (, two of the most important accelerators for OpenID adoption are improving ease of use and facilitating site registration by passing user profile data (with user permission). Recently AOL, Google, and Yahoo have all begun offering user data via SREG/AX and MySpace’s Data Availability initiative will also provide rich user profile data.

    There has been a lot of research and experimentation on OpenID UX (, with two of the leading innovations coming from Google’s LSO initiative ( and JanRain’s RPX ( SaaS offering. The OpenID community welcomes continuing feedback on how to increase adoption and usage of OpenID.

  2. I don’t think that you win by being open, per se, but by enabling relevant functionality in a way that works for non-developer-types. If you make it free, and make it accessible, and give a lot of influence to a decentralized community of spreaders, you can see the kind of success that Firefox has had elsewhere.

    To wit, Firefox didn’t necessarily do anything different than Internet Explorer, except support web standards, make tabbed browsing more accessible, and limit the spread of mal- and spyware. But Firefox would not have existed had Internet Explorer not grown to monopoly scale and then stagnated.

    Similarly, the contest between Friend Connect and OpenID (and the related cadre of Open Stack technologies) has needed a proprietary example of where this stuff is going to get the open source community motivated to commoditize it. Rarely do we see good design leadership from open source technologies; instead we see open developers want to do cool things or serve their own needs and not have to answer to a central authority.

    Once Facebook Connect does capture more mindshare and real estate, I believe it’s then that open source will react. Fortunately, there will be enough meat on the bones of OpenID, OAuth, PoCo, Activity Streams and other DiSo-esque technologies that it won’t take too long to catch up.

    Your point is well taken; we do need a killer app to demonstrate the value of OpenID. But I think it will come in time. I’m actually not too worried about that. I am, however, more worried about whether OpenID will stay true to its roots or be corrupted by short-sighted corporate involvement.

  3. @Brian: I’m not saying UX and sharing profile data are not important issues. But I don’t think this type of issues is what inhibits mass adoption. OpenID will now be competing with FB and others on being adopted, and the winner will be the one that is most appealing. Where the interest will be commercial, and that will be a lot, OpenID must have a counter appeal.

    @Chris: your analysis seems spot-on to me. What you say, then, is that this “lagging behind” that I mentioned is almost intentional – let’s wait for the industry to do the “market research” first, then we’ll build on that added knowledge. Interesting.

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