Microsoft will consider joining Passport competitor

Microsoft will consider joining a newly formed coalition working on digital identity technology similar to the company's Passport system.

          Microsoft will consider joining a newly formed coalition working on digital identity technology similar to the company's Passport system if coalition vendors, including rival Sun Microsystems, show a commitment to keeping the identity platform open, a Microsoft official said yesterday.

          Sun and about 30 other companies launched the Liberty Alliance Project yesterday, hoping to lay the foundation for a new type of authentication system that would allow user information, such as credit card numbers, to travel securely between websites. The system would be similar to Microsoft's Passport technology, saving users time by asking them to fill out name or credit card fields on a website once and then having that information pop up automatically on other sites that support the technology.

          One of the major differences at this point between the Liberty Alliance system and Microsoft's is where the end user's information would be stored. The alliance members would each store a user's information on their own servers and then pass that information from vendor to vendor, whereas Microsoft stores all Passport information on only its servers, although the company said last week it would consider letting a third party manage the data.

          Sun and others in the coalition suggested that Microsoft could become part of the alliance, making Passport a subset of a digital identity standard -- an idea Microsoft is not dismissing at this time, and which could possibly get around conflicts between the two systems.

          "If they are sincere (about an open platform), there's probably an opportunity for us to work together here," said Chris Payne, vice president of marketing for the services platform group at Microsoft. "I don't see it as a competitive announcement."

          Sun and its partners seem amenable to having Microsoft and AOL Time Warner work together on the technology. Executives from Sun, RealNetworks and Bank of America extended their invitation publicly to Microsoft and AOL Time Warner during a news conference with press and analysts, launching the alliance.

          Microsoft already took a more open stance with Passport last week, saying it would work to make its system interoperate with competing technology more easily.

          Such openness in the industry could provide a boon for users and vendors alike.

          "I think more and more people are now realising that a unified user identity system is very useful and beneficial," says Dana Gardner, an analyst with Aberdeen Group.

          Microsoft could potentially benefit from joining the Liberty Alliance because the software maker has not always had a reputation for security and trust. Down the line, end users, service providers and large companies will ultimately use the service they trust the most, Gardner says.

          "I don't think it is a given that Microsoft is open or trusted," he says. "Microsoft is a convicted monopolist on appeal, and I think that will weigh heavily on peoples' minds as they decide who to partner with. Sun is going out of its way to make sure enterprises own and control their relationship with the customer. Microsoft has not gone out of its way to show this."

          Microsoft has a sizeable head start over the Liberty Alliance with about 165 million users already signed up for its service and the Liberty group outlining still vague plans. Liberty Alliance leaders pledge they will roll out their technology in the coming months.

          (Sam Costello in Boston contributed to this report)

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