A couple related posts caught my attention recently about OpenID. As I’m now a board member of the OpenID Foundation, I feel some responsibility for helping to inform folks about OpenID: what it is, how it’s used, why I believe that it has so much potential — and at same time, address what it isn’t, won’t or can’t be, and what the scope of the OpenID solution stack is.
The first is a post by Nick O’Neill from the Social Times blog: “OpenID Organizes the Organizers While Facebook and Google Start Letting Users Login“. It was posted on December 29th.
He begins his criticism with a slight error:
Over the weekend the OpenID Foundation announced that they are having its first election of community board members.
In fact, over that particular weekend, the OIDF announced the results of its election, not the kick off.
But his broader sentiment deserves a response:
[...while] Facebook and Google have launched their own identity services that enable users to instantly log in to any site with third-party accounts[, ... the] group seems to still be in the process of organizing though. … I think the group is over planning and under executing.
Josh Catone from SitePoint picked up his point, suggesting that “OpenID Needs to Start Getting Real“. He writes:
What the OpenID Foundation needs to do is start “getting real.” Getting real is a business philosophy from 37signals, a successful web application software company based in Chicago. Though there’s a lot more to their idea, one of the main themes essentially boils down to this: stop screwing around with all the stuff that doesn’t matter and just wastes time (like politics and meetings), and start doing the stuff that needs to get done (like building your app). Don’t worry about the details until people are already using what you’re selling.
I agree with O’Neill that so far the OpenID Foundation seems to be spending too much time on organizational stuff, and not enough time on actually doing what needs to get done. In a chapter of their book “Getting Real,” 37signals talks about how meetings can kill productivity. “Every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead,” they write. From my admittedly outsider’s vantage point, it appears that the people behind OpenID are getting too caught up in the organizational stuff, getting too lost in the details, and not spending enough time on execution.
My perspective, of course, is that of an outsider. I’m not privy to what’s going on behind closed doors, so to speak. So my perception of what’s really going on could be off. But at this point in the game, public perception is what it’s all about.
And therein lies the heart of the problem. Perception is reality in the land of OpenID and will shape the thinking of developers, users and those who make up the OpenID and user-centered identity communities unless we initiate a campaign to earnestly counter those perceptions.
Nevermind that for OpenID to succeed, it must be developed with the involvement of many different groups, each with slightly different ideas, objectives and release cycles. Unlike Facebook Connect, OpenID is essentially consensus technology. To advance, it must secure and maintain the buy-in and adoption of many parties on every forward step. But let’s ignore that for a moment, because that’s an issue for us to overcome.
Jim Louderback (veteran of PC Mag) recounted his miserable experience trying to sign in to Disqus with his OpenID in a post titled “I can haz OpenID?“. Apparently, he can not, since he abandoned his comment and resorted to posting it to Twitter instead. The problem apparently had to do with Clickpass, but that’s besides the point, as the experience left a serious impression (emphasis mine):
And that gets me back to OpenID. I love the idea of having one set of identification credentials that I can use around the web. If it all works right, it’ll be awesome, birds will sing and the swallows will return to wherever they’ve disappeared from. But it won’t all work right, not all the time. We’re talking software here, and the internet, and the egos of childish web developers. Occasional (or more often) fail is guaranteed.
It’s even worse than I feared. A few days after my Disqus debacle I was talking with a developer friend of mine who was bemoaning the sorry state of OpenID implementations. It seems that all the big sites have their own flavors, and the OpenID foundation just doesn’t have enough clout to force a single standard across the web.
That’s a bad state of affairs. It guarantees more fail – and also guarantees epic finger-pointing. Who will lose? The users, first, who won’t be nearly as patient nor accommodating as I am. But in the end the whole glorious promise of OpenID will be left in tatters, and we’ll be back to our walled-gardens of identification. And that’s just too bad – because an open, interoperable identity system is actually one of the best ideas I’ve heard in a long time. Too bad no one can get their act together to actually build it right.
And these are the stories that will be told and retold because it’s not the successes that are heralded — it’s the epic failures. As much as I like to rag on Twitter about OAuth, their service is a million times better than it was six months ago during the Summer of the Fail. Twitter ops deserve a lot of credit for making hard decisions about which features should be cut in order to scale the service.
But when it works, people don’t shower Twitter with praise. It’s expected. It’s only when there are problems that people raise their voices — and it’s no different with OpenID. Unfortunately it’s this cacophony of complaints that ends up shaping the negative perceptions of OpenID.
So, when the Japanese chapter of the OpenID Foundation releases figures that show significant and gaining consumer awareness of OpenID in Japan that contradict the outdated and statistically insignificant findings (PDF) that Yahoo presented last year (on which so much criticism was heaped), few seem to notice.
Progress in Japan alone isn’t enough of course. But it does suggest that there is more to the story of OpenID’s overall progress and success in the marketplace. It also suggests that OpenID has yet to succumb to Facebook Connect or that it ever will (or that that’s even the right question).
Still, what all this says to me is that the OpenID Foundation and the community at large have its work cut out for itself.
As more people begin to believe in the promise of OpenID, more people will commit themselves to the success of OpenID, taking ownership of the idea, and promoting it their friends and family (as they did with Firefox). Our opportunity is to make good on the hope that people have for OpenID and effectively channel it to challenge the bruised perception that defines OpenID today. If we succeed, changing perceptions truly will change reality.