The Fall of Vidoop

Vidoop logoWhen I left Flock in 2006, I blogged the occasion, having helped start the company by contributing a vision for what I thought the web needed: a social browser.

When I was laid off from Vidoop last month, I didn’t so much as tweet about it. The circumstances were different this time. But because the lack of information coming from the company is disappointing (if not frankly irresponsible) it seemed time that I wrote down my recollection of what went down.
Continue reading “The Fall of Vidoop”

The open, social web

I was in Europe for the past week and half, ending up in Leuven, Belgium to speak at the conference. The topic of my talk was “The Open, Social Web.” (PDF)

At first I struggled to develop a compelling or sensible narrative for the talk — as there is so much to it that I could probably give a dozen or more 45 minutes talks on the subject. With some long-distance encouragement from Brynn, I eventually arrived at the topic I wanted to cover that lead to a conclusion that has largely been implicit in my work so far.

Continue reading “The open, social web”

Does OpenID need to be hard?

Prompted by posts by Randy Reddig and Tony Stubblebine and a conversation with Elliott Kember, I wanted to address, yet again, the big fat stinking elephant in the room: OpenID usability and the paradox of choice.

Elliott proposed a pretty clear picture of what he thinks OpenID should look like on StackOverflow, given the relative value of each provider to him:

How OpenID should look, by Elliott Kember

Compare that to how it actually looks today:

Login or Register - Stack Overflow

I’m with him. I get it.

We’re at this crossroads where it really doesn’t matter which OpenID provider you use — because while it might save you the hassle of creating yet another password — there’s little else that you can do with an OpenID beyond that.

And, if you’ve already got more than one OpenID, not much exists to help you decide which OpenID provider you should use (many people tell me: “I hate OpenID! I’ve got like 15 OpenIDs and I never know which one to use!”).

So on the one hand, we’ve done a poor job of building out the value of using an OpenID, and on the other, have failed to explain what it means to have an OpenID (or several) or how to go about deciding which one to use and why (hat tip to OpenID Explained for taking a crack at it).

Meanwhile, there’s a tension between the convenience of having one reusable and durable identity against the desire to express many aspects of one’s identity with many separate IDs, resulting in complex user interfaces.

Fortunately, OpenID as a technology can serve both needs, but communicating and demonstrating that effectively has remained a challenge.

Putting OpenID in context

For my part, I’ve used the metaphor of credit cards to try to explain OpenID:

  • Online identity is moving from its “cash and check” era to the era of “credit cards”.

    Before the advent of charge cards, payment systems were decentralized — inefficient, cumbersome, and prone to fraud. There were a number of different, non-interoperable payment mechanisms that took 30+ years to get straightened out. Indeed, the credit card system that we take for granted today (so much so that airlines have moved to relying on them as the sole form of in-flight payment) only came about in the late 90s, a good 70 years after Western Union began issuing the first credit cards.

    Imagine OpenID taking 70 years to get mass adoption!!

    Taking this metaphor at face value, it’s clear that we’re in the neonatal stages of the build-out of the OpenID network and still have much work ahead of us. Fortunately, adoption cycles have also accelerated — I don’t have the actual numbers off-hand, but I can tell you that it took longer than four years to get the first 500 million credit card users!

  • As with credit cards, you can have as many OpenIDs as you like for different purposes. I presume that common divisions will fall along work, personal, and affinity lines:

    Credit cards

    …and of course there are cases I’ve not even considered yet

  • To close out this metaphor, picking an identity provider should be like picking a bank or credit card provider: as a fourth-party service provider that advocates for your interest, since you’re their customer! Today, to Elliott’s point, there are not many obvious differences between providers; over time, I expect this to change and for this relationship to become core to one’s experience on (and enjoyment of) the web.

    Instead of agreeing to terms of service that disclaim all responsibility to you, the customer, I hope that competition in the identity space will lead providers to actually take responsibility for their services — charging good money for doing so. If your account gets hacked — no problem! — your identity provider can put back the pieces and make things right again! You could even take out online identity insurance in case your identity is ever stolen — so you can always get back to your life and recover your data without the hassle and interruption when it happens today.

    Which credit card company would you give your business to? The one that automatically credits back false charges on your account and investigates them or the one that harasses you when you travel and presumes the worst of you? I know which one I’d pick — and I’d apply the same decision heuristics to whoever provides my online identity.


Apart from confusion over having multiple OpenIDs, the user interface that has resulted from having many top-tier providers in the space also causes confusion.

nascar-babyElliott’s criticism of the StackOverflow OpenID interface is really aimed at the noise of the brand logos displayed as buttons — intended to help people sign in using an account they already have. This kind of interface is what Daniel Burka refers to as the “OpenID NASCAR” because all the logos look like a NASCAR racecar covered with brand stickers, all jockeying for your attention.

He’s got a point. Since he’s logging in with his Google account, he really only wants a Google button:

How OpenID should look, by Elliott Kember

For all he cares, it could look like this:

OpenID without choice

…and the result would be the same thing.

Indeed, it is this kind of lack of choice that makes Facebook Connect so seductively compelling.

And dangerous.

fbconnectIt’s a frigging button. You can’t mistake it. If you argued that reducing choice increases the likelihood that the user will “get it right” and be able to sign in to your site, you’d be correct.

But, that kind of restriction of freedom of choice impairs healthy competition in the marketplace. And lack of competition is, generally, bad for the health of an ecosystem, and ultimately bad for the consumer.

The harmony in the Yin & Yang of Simplicity and Choice

Ignoring your actual preference for Coke, if this were the universal experience for buying soda, one might argue that simplicity and fewer choices are better:

No Choice

But having choice is a better overall condition. Even when a popular brand is made more prominent, having alternatives means at least maintaining the illusion of control over one’s destiny:

Coke & Others

(Original photo by Bryan Costin shared under the Creative Commons license.)

So the question is, how can we simplify OpenID so that anyone can use it without reducing freedom of choice? Well, what if the backend technology was fundamentally interoperable, but every site simply supported a button, like this:

Uber-sign in button

…and upon clicking it, a new window would pop open and you’d be presented with a box, in which you could type just about anything: an email address, a URL, the name of a social network, your phone number… heck, you could even type your name (and if you were signed into a site like Facebook that leaks basic aspects of your identity), you could select yourself from a list of names and photos and then proceed through the typical OpenID flow to prove that you are who you are, completing the sign in process.

One problem that I’ve observed with OpenID input boxes, to date, is that they look far too similar to another solitary but familiar input box. Namely — the Google search box! …where anything goes:


Given the training that people have learned from using Google, we must balance the need for simplicity with the ability to make an informed personal choice about which identity to present to a site. Needs which are, in many respects, at odds. Yet, the future of OpenID depends on us unraveling these issues and developing suitable interfaces that are streamlined and straight-forward that also enhance individual freedom.

With the recently approved User Interface Working Group, headed up by Allen Tom from Yahoo!, and with the involvement of folks from Facebook and other organizations, I’m optimistic that we will make considerable progress this year.

And that ultimately, no, OpenID need not be hard. Making it so just won’t happen overnight.

Inaugural Jelly! Talk this Friday: OpenID vs Facebook Connect

Jelly TalksThis Friday, I’ll be joined by Dave Morin (my good friend from Facebook) at the first ever Jelly! Talk at Joe and Brian’s loft in San Francisco.

If you’re not familiar with Jelly, you should be. I call it the “gateway drug to coworking” — but it really has its own culture and identity independent of coworking, though both movements are rather complementary. Amit Gupta got Jelly started at House 2.0 in New York City back in 2006 (about two months after I initially expressed my desire to create a coworking space in San Francisco). Since then, like coworking, it’s grown into a self-sustaining movement.

Jelly! Talks is an interesting expansion on the concept — where Jellies distributed throughout the world can tune in to hear interesting and relevant talks and interact with speakers, similar to what the 37 Signals guys do with their “Live” show.

This first show I’ll be talking with Dave Morin about the relationship between OpenID and Facebook Connect — and where the two technologies are headed. This should be a pretty interesting conversation, since I’ve long tried to convince the folks at Facebook to adopt OpenID and other elements of the Open Stack (hey, they’ve got hcard already!).

Apparently the event is physically booked up, but you’ll still be to tune in remotely this Friday at 11am PST.

(Tip: The next Jelly! Talk will feature Guy Kawasaki).

Responding to criticisms about OpenID: convenience, security and personal agency

Twitter / Chris Drackett:  openID should be dead... its over-rated.

Chris Dracket responded to one of my tweets the other day, saying that “OpenID should be dead… it’s way over-rated”. I’ve of course heard plenty of criticisms of OpenID, but hadn’t really heard that it was “overrated” (which implies that people have a higher opinion of OpenID than it merits).

Intrigued, I replied, asking him to elaborate, which he did via email:

I don’t know if overrated is the right word.. but I just don’t see OpenID ever catching on.. I think the main reason is that its too complex / scary of an idea for the normal user to understand and accept.

In my opinion the only way to make OpenID seem safe (for people who are worried about privacy online) is if the user has full control over the OpenID provider. While this is possible for people like you and me, my mom is never going to get to this point, and if she wants to use OpenID she is going to have to trust her sensitive data to AOL, MS, Google, etc. I think that people see giving this much “power” to a single provider as scary.

Lastly I think that OpenID is too complex to properly explain to someone and get them to use it. People understand usernames and passwords right away, and even OAuth, but OpenID in itself I think is too hard to grasp. I dunno, just a quick opinion.. I think there is a reason that we don’t have a single key on our key rings that opens our house, car, office and mailbox, not that that is a perfect/accurate analogy, but its close to how some people I’ve talked to think OpenID works.

Rather than respond privately, I asked whether it’d be okay if I posted his follow-up and replied on my blog. He obliged.

To summarize my interpretation of his points: OpenID is too complex and scary, potentially too insecure, and too confined to the hands of a few companies.

The summary of my rebuttals:


OpenID should not be judged by today’s technological environment alone, but rather should be considered in the context of the migration to “cloud computing”, where people no longer access files on their local harddrive, but increasingly need to access data stored by web services.

All early technologies face criticism based on current trends and dominant behaviors, and OpenID is no different. At one time, people didn’t grok sending email between different services (in fact, you couldn’t). At one time, people didn’t grok IMing their AOL buddies using Google Talk (in fact, you couldn’t). At one time, you had one computer and your browser stored all of your passwords on the client-side (this is basically where we are today) and at one time, people accessed their photos, videos, and documents locally on their desktop (as is still the case for most people).

Cloud computing represents a shift in how people access and share data. Already, people rely less and less on physical media to store data and more and more on internet-based web services.

As a consequence, people will need a mechanism for referencing their data and services as convenient as the c: prompt. An OpenID, therefore, should become the referent people use to indicate where their data is “stored”.

An OpenID is not just about identification and blog comments; nor is it about reducing the number of passwords you have (that’s a by-product of user-centered design). Consider:

  • if I ask you where your photos are, you could say Flickr, and then prove it, because Flickr supports OpenID.
  • if I ask you where friends are, you might say MySpace, and then prove it, because MySpace will support OpenID.
  • if you host your own blog or website, you will be able to provide your address and then prove it, because you are OpenID-enabled.

The long-term benefit of OpenID is being able to refer to all the facets of your online identity and data sources with one handy — ideally memorable — web-friendly identifier. Rather than relying on my email addresses alone to identify myself, I would use my OpenIDs, and link to all the things that represent me online: from my resume to my photos to my current projects to my friends, web services and so on.

The big picture of cloud computing points to OpenIDs simplifying how people access, share and connect data to people and services.


I’ve heard many people complain that if your OpenID gets hacked, then you’re screwed. They claim that it’s like putting all your eggs in one basket.

But that’s really no different than your email account getting hacked. Since your email address is used to reset your password, any or all of your accounts could have their passwords reset and changed; worse, the password and the account email address could be changed, locking you out completely.

At minimum, OpenID is no worse than the status quo.

At best, combined with OAuth, third-parties never need your account password, defeating the password anti-pattern and providing a more secure way to share your data.

Furthermore, because securing your OpenID is outside of the purview of the spec, you can choose an OpenID provider (or set up your own) with a level of security that fits your needs. So while many OpenID providers currently stick with the traditional username and password combo, others offer more sophisticated approaches, from client-side certificates and hardware keys to biometrics and image-based password shields (as in the case of my employer, Vidoop).

One added benefit of OpenID is the ability to audit and manage access to your account, just as you do with a credit card account. This means that you have a record of every time someone (hopefully you!) signs in to one of your accounts with your OpenID, as well as how frequently sign-ins occur, from which IP addresses and on what devices. From a security perspective, this is a major advantage over basic usernames and passwords, as collecting this information from each service provider would prove inconvenient and time-consuming, if even possible.

Given this benefit, it’s worth considering that identity technologies
are being pushed on the government. If you’re worried about putting all your eggs in one basket, would you think differently if the government owned that basket?

OpenID won’t force anyone to change their current behavior, certainly not right away. But wouldn’t it be better to have the option to choose an alternative way to secure your accounts if you wanted it? OpenID starts with the status quo and, coupled with OAuth, provides an opportunity to make things better.

We’re not going to make online computing more secure overnight, but it seems like a prudent place to start.

Personal agency for web citizens

Looking over the landscape of existing social software applications, I see very few (if any) that could not be enhanced by OpenID support.

OpenID is a cornerstone technology of the emerging social web, and adds value anywhere users have profiles, accounts or need access to remote data.

Historically, we’ve seen similar attempts at providing a universal login account. Microsoft even got the name right with “Passport”, but screwed up the network model. Any identity system, if it’s going to succeed on the open web, needs to be designed with user choice at its core, in order to facilitate marketplace competition. A single-origin federated identity network will always fail on the internet (as Joseph Smarr and John McCrea like to say of Facebook Connect: We’ve seen this movie before).

As such, selecting an identity provider should not be relegated to a default choice. Where you come from (what I call provenance) has meaning.

For example, if you connect to a service using your Facebook account, the relying party can presume that the profile information that Facebook supplies will be authentic, since Facebook works hard to ferret out fake accounts from its network (unlike MySpace). Similarly, signing in with a Google Account provides a verified email address.

Just like the issuing country of your passport may say something about you to the immigration official reviewing your documents, the OpenID provider that you use may also say something about you to the relying party that you’re signing in to. It is therefore critical that people make an informed choice about who provides (and protects) their identity online, and that the enabling technologies are built with the option for individuals to vouch for themselves.

In the network model where anyone can host their own independent OpenID (just like anyone can set up their own email server), competition may thrive. Where competition thrives, an ecosystem may arise, developed under the rubric of market dynamics and Darwinian survivalism. And in this model, the individual is at the center, rather than the services he or she uses.

This the citizen-centric model of the web, and each of us are sovereign citizens of the web. Since I define and host my own identity, I do not need to worry about services like Pownce being sold or I Want Sandy users left wanting. I have choice, I have bargaining power, and I have agency, and this is critical to the viability of the social web at scale.

Final words

OpenID is not overrated, it’s just early. We’re just getting started with writing the rules of social software on the web, and we’ve got a lot of bad habits to correct.

As cloud computing goes mainstream (evidenced in part by the growing popularity of Netbooks this holiday season!), we’re going to need a consumer-facing technology and brand like OpenID to help unify this new, more virtualized world, in order to make it universally accessible.

Fortunately, as we stack more and more technologies and services on our OpenIDs, we can independently innovate the security layer, developing increasingly sophisticated solutions as necessary to make sure that only the right people have access to our accounts and our data.

It is with with these changes that we must evaluate OpenID — not as a technology for 2008’s problems — but as a formative building block for 2009 and the future of the social web.

I’m a candidate for the board of the OpenID Foundation!

I'm kind of a big dealThe OpenID Foundation board election opened up on December 10. After a grueling nominations process (not really), we were left with 17 candidates vying for seven community board member seats. Your candidates are (alphabetized by first name):

So far, a great deal of discussion has gone on about the various candidates’ platforms on the OpenID general mailing list. Candidates have also written about things that they would like to change in the coming year on their blogs as well, notably Dave Recordon and Johannes Ernst.

For my own part, I wrote up many of my ideas when I announced my candidacy. I also maintain a wiki page of goals that I have for OpenID.

The three issues that are at the top of my list should I be elected to the board really come down to:

  • establishing OpenID as a strong consumer brand
  • improving the user experience and ease-of-use of OpenID
  • enhancing the value of adopting OpenID for individuals, businesses, and organizations

I will lay out my rationale for these positions in a series of upcoming posts.

In the meantime, if you’d like to vote in this election, you will need to register for a $25 year-long membership in the OpenID Foundation (basically providing you the privilege to participate in this and other foundation elections and activities).

I also solicit your feedback, concerns and wishes for OpenID. Though I have plenty ideas about the kind of work that needs to go into OpenID to make it into a great cornerstone technology for the open web, I’m also very interested in hearing from other people about their experiences with OpenID, or about their ideas for how we can advance the cause of OpenID in 2009.

A conversation about social network interop and activity stream relevance

Brian Oberkirch captured some video today of a conversation between him, David Recordon and myself at GSP East about social network interop, among other things.

Hot on the heals on my last post, this conversation is rather timely!