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.

The OpenID “NASCAR”

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:

Googlebox

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.

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:


Convenience

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.


Security

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.

Independent study on OpenID awareness using Mechanical Turk

Even though I wasn’t able to attend the eighth Internet Identity Workshop this week in Mountain View (check out the latest episode of TheSocialWeb.tv for a glimpse), I wanted to do my part to contribute so I’m sharing the results of a study that Brynn Evans and I performed on Mechanical Turk a short while ago.

I’ll cut to the chase and then go into some background detail.

Heard of OpenID?Of the 302 responses we received, we only rejected one, leaving us with 301 valid data points to work with. Of those 301:

  • 19.3% had heard of OpenID (58 people)
  • 9.0% knew what OpenID was used for (27) and 8.0% were unsure (24)
  • 1.3% used OpenID (4) and 18.3% were unsure if they used it (55).
  • 5.3% recognized the OpenID icon (16) and 7.0% were unsure (21).

Combining some of the results, we found that:

  • of those who know what OpenID is, 14.81% use it.
  • of those who have merely heard of it, 6.9% use it.

That’s what the data show.

Background

Several weeks ago, Yahoo released usability research and best practices for OpenID (PDF). This research was performed by Beverly Freeman in the Yahoo! Customer Insights division in July of this year and involved 9 female Yahoo! users age 32-39 with self-declared medium-to-high level of Internet savvy.

This research, along with Eric Sachs’ later contributions (Google), have taken us from virtually zero research on the usability of OpenID to having a much more robust pool of information to pull from. And though I’m sure many would agree that this research only points to opportunities for improvement, many people interpreted the results as an indication that “OpenID is too confusing” or that it “befuddles users“.

A lot of people also took cheap shots, using the Yahoo! results to bolster their long-held arguments against the protocol and its unfamiliar interaction flow. The problem with such criticism, as far as I’m concerned, is that generalizing from the experiences of nine female Yahoo! users in their thirties is not necessarily representative of the web at large, nor are the conditions favorable to such research. Y’know, Ford got a lot of flack too when he introduced the Model T because everyone loved their horse and carriages. Good thing Ford was right.

Now, some of the criticism of OpenID is valid, especially if it can be turned into productive outcomes, like making OpenID easier to use, or less awkward.

And it serves no one’s interests to make grandiose claims on the basis of minimal data, so given Brynn’s work using Mechanical Turk (with Ed Chi from PARC), I thought I’d ask her to help me set up a study to discover just what awareness of OpenID might be among a wider segment of the population, especially with Japanese awareness of OpenID topping out around 28% (with usage of OpenID at 15%, more than ten times what we saw with Turkers).

Mechanical Turk Demographics

First, it’s important to point out something about Turker demographics. Because Turkers must have either a US bank account or be willing to be paid in Amazon gift certificates, the quality of participants you get (especially if you design your HIT well) will actually be pretty good (compared with, say, a blog-based survey). Now, Mechanical Turk actually has rules against asking for demographic or personally identifying information, but some information has been gathered by Panos Ipeirotis to shed some light on who the Turkers are and why they participate. I’ll leave the bulk of the analysis up to him, but it’s worth noting that a survey put out on Mechanical Turk about OpenID will likely hit a fairly average segment of the internet-using population (or at least one that doesn’t differ greatly from college undergraduates).

Method

Over the course of a week (October 19 – 26), we fielded 302 responses to our survey, paying $0.02 for each valid reply (yes, we were essentially asking people for their “two cents”). We only rejected one response out of the batch, leaving us with 301 valid data points at a whooping cost of $6.02.

Findings

As I reported above, contrary to the 0% awareness demonstrated in the Yahoo! study of nine participants, we found that nearly 20% of respondents had at least heard of OpenID, though a much smaller percentage (1.3%) actually used it (or at least were consciously aware of using it — nearly everyone (18%) who’d heard of OpenID didn’t know if they used it or not).

There was also at least some familiarity with the OpenID logo/icon (5.3%).

What’s also interesting is that many respondents, upon hearing about “OpenID”, expressed an interest in finding out more: “What is it? LOL.”; “I’ve gotta look it up!”; “This survey has sparked my interest”; “Heading to Google to find out”. I can’t say that this shows clear interest in the concept, but at least some folks showed a curious disposition, as such:

How can I tell for sure whether I’ve used OpenID or not when I don’t know what it is? I’ve surely heard of it. That confuses me mainly in Magnolia {bookmarking service} where I want to sign up, but I can’t as it asks for OpenID. And until you mentioned above, it simply didn’t occur to me to just search it up. Hell, after submitting this hit, I’m going to do that first and foremost. Anyways, thanks a lot for indirectly suggesting a move!!!

Now, I won’t repeat the other findings, as they’ve already been reported above.

Thoughts and next steps

The results of this survey are interesting to me, but not unexpected. They’re not reassuring either, and they tell me that we’re doing well considering that we’ve only just begun.

Consider that 20% of a random sampling of 300 people on the internet had at least heard of OpenID, before Google, MySpace or Microsoft turned on their support for the protocol (MySpace announced their intention to support OpenID in July).

Consider that nearly a year ago Marshall Kirkpatrick sounded the deathknell of what seemed like the forgone conclusion about OpenID:

Big Players are Dragging Their Feet … Sharing User Info is a Whole Other Matter … Public Facing Profiles are Anemic … Ease of Use and Marketing Clarity Remain Low Priorities

Consider that no concerted effort has been made to date to inform or educate the general web population about OpenID, or about the problems with sharing your user credentials all over the web, and that many of the large providers have yet to turn on their OpenID support (despite all coming to the table and agreeing that it’s the way forward for identity on the web (save, as usual, Facebook, looking more Microsoftian by the day).

Consider also that momentum to rev the protocol to accommodate email addresses in OpenID is just now gaining traction.

In other words, with areas of user education becoming obvious, with provider adoption starting to happen (vis-a-via MySpace demonstrating the value and prevalence of URL-based identifiers) and necessary usability improvements starting to take shape (both in terms of the OpenID and OAuth flows being combined, and in terms of email addresses becoming valid in OpenID flows), we’re truly just getting started with making OpenID ready for mainstream audiences. It’s been a hard slog so far, and it’s bound to continue to be challenging, but the shared vision for where we’re going gets clearer every time there’s an Internet Identity Workshop.

I plan to re-run this study every 3-6 months from this point forward to keep track of our progress. I hope that these numbers will shed some much-needed balanced light on the subject of OpenID awareness and adoption — both to demonstrate how far we have to go, and how far we’ve come.

Lightweight access PINs: a modest proposal for enabling OpenID in desktop and mobile apps

While the news that Google is now an OpenID Provider was generally welcomed, a common chorus decrying their support (along with others large OPs like Yahoo, Microsoft and others) at best as half-hearted, at worst as ruining OpenID has revealed a significant barrier to such large providers becoming relying parties (even beyond usability).

Eric Sachs (Google Security Team) writes:

One other question that a lot of people asked yesterday is when a large provider like Google will become a relying party. There is one big problem that stands in the way of doing that, but fortunately it is more of a technology problem than a usability issue. That problem is that rich-client apps (desktop apps and mobile apps) are hard-coded to ask a user for their username and password. As an example, all Google rich-client apps would break if we supported federated login for our consumer users, and in fact they do break for the large number of our enterprise E-mail outsourcing customers who run their own identity provider, and for which Google is a relying party today. This problem with rich-client apps also affects other sites like Plaxo who are already relying parties.

Fortunately there is a solution, and it was developed specifically because Ma.gnolia ran into this problem when it became an OpenID relying party. The result, nine months in the making, was OAuth. Eric even recognizes this:

We need standard open-source components on as many platforms as possible to enable those rich-client apps to support OAuth. That includes a lot more platforms then just Windows and Mac. The harder part is mobile devices (Blackberry, Symbian, Windows Mobile, iPhone, and yes even Android), and other Internet connected devices like Tivos, Apple TVs, Playstations, etc. that have rich-client apps that ask users for their passwords to access services like Youtube, Google photos, etc. If we build these components, they will be useful not only to Google, but also to any other relying parties which have rich-client apps or exposes APIs, and it will also help enterprise SaaS vendors like Salesforce.

iPhone Sync CodeAs I’ve been thinking about this problem, I’ve come to see as an intermediate approach to full-on delegated authorization a simpler, perhaps more familiar approach that would be relatively easy to implement given common interface patterns today. For comparison, Pownce’s iPhone app originally used out-of-band browser-based authentication, leading to a swarm of user criticism resulting in a compromised solution that required embedding a web browser in the app. Less than ideal.

In my proposal, rather than ask for a user’s password, an easier-to-remember OP-issued numerical PIN would be used to authenticate requests. Better is that this approach is already supported in OAuth, it’s just not widely used yet (though is similar to how Flickr authorizes mobile clients).

The basic concept is that you’d have one password (or other strong authentication method) for your primary OpenID account and you’d have one (or more) PINs that you would use to access your account remotely — perhaps in limited risk scenarios or where (again) the full browser-based OAuth flow is not possible or warranted.

Although I initially opposed FriendFeed’s use of Remote Keys, I now think that there’s some merit to this approach, as long as the underlying mechanism uses standard OAuth calls.

There are plenty of holes in this approach, but insomuch as it enables an existing pattern to be phased out gently, I think it offers at least the foundation of an idea that could be useful. It also could be used as a counter-balance to some of the current thinking on federated login flows with OAuth.

Consider these three sign in boxes for comparison:

  1. Traditional Password
    traditional password
  2. Lightweight PIN access
    pin-access
  3. Full OAuth
    Full OAuth

Thoughts welcome.

OpenID usability is not an oxymoron

Julie Zhou of Facebook discusses usability findings from Facebook Connect.
Julie Zhou of Facebook discusses usability findings from Facebook Connect. Photo © John McCrea. All rights reserved.

See? We're working on this! Monday last week marked the first ever OpenID UX Summit at Yahoo! in Sunnyvale with over 40 in attendance. Representatives came from MySpace, Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Vidoop, Janrain, Six Apart, AOL, Chimp, Magnolia, Microsoft, Plaxo, Netmesh, Internet 2 and Liberty Alliance to debate and discuss how best to make implementations of the protocol easier to use and more familiar.

John McCrea covered the significance of the summit on TechCrunchIT (and recognized Facebook’s welcomed participation) and has a good overall summary on his blog.

While the summit was a long-overdue step towards addressing the clear usability issues directly inhibiting the spread of OpenID, there are four additional areas that I think need more attention. I’ll address each separately. Continue reading “OpenID usability is not an oxymoron”

Announcing Emailtoid: mapping email addresses to OpenIDs

EmailtoidThe other night at Beer and Blog in Portland, fellow Vidooper Michael T Richardson announced and launched a new service that I’m both excited and a little apprehensive about.

The service is called Emailtoid, and while I prefer to pronounce is “email-toyed”, others might pronounce it “email two eye-dee”. And depending on your pronunciation, you might realize that this service is about using an email address as an ID — specifically an OpenID.

This is not a new idea, and it’s one that been debated and discussed in the OpenID community an awful lot, which culminated in a rough outline of how it might work by Brad Fitzpatrick following the Social Graph FOO Camp this past spring, and that David Fuelling turned into an early draft spec.

Well, we looked at this work and this discussion and felt that sooner or later, in spite of all the benefits of using actual URLs for identity, that someone needed to take a lead and actually build out this concept so we have something real to banter about.

The pragmatic reality is that many people are comfortable using email addresses as their identity online for signing up to new services; furthermore, many, many more people have email addresses who don’t also have URLs or homepages that they call their own (or can readily identify). And forcing people to learn yet another form of identifier for the web to satisfy the design of a protocol for arguably marginal value with a lesser user experience also doesn’t make sense. Put another way: the limitations of the technology should not be forced on end users, especially when it doesn’t need to be. And that’s why Emailtoid is a necessary experiment towards advancing identity on the web.

How it works

Emailtoid is a very simple service, and in fact is designed for obsolescence. It’s meant as a fallback for now, enabling relying parties to accept email addresses as identifiers without requiring the generation of a new local password and without requiring the address owner to give up or reveal their existing email credentials (otherwise known as the “password anti-pattern“).

Enter your email - Emailtoid

The flow works like this:

  1. Users enter either an OpenID or email address into a typical OpenID input field. For the purpose of this flow, we’ll presume an email address is used.
  2. The relying party splits email addresses at the ‘@’ symbol into the username and the domain, generating a directed identity request to the email domain. If an XRDS, YADIS or XRDS-Simple document is discovered at the domain, the typical OpenID flow is invoked.
  3. If no discovery document is found, the service falls back to Emailtoid (sending a request like http://emailtoid.net/mapper?email=jane@example.com), where users verify that they own the supplied email addresses by providing their one-time access token that Emailtoid mailed to them.
  4. At this point, users may optionally associate an existing OpenID with their email address, or use the OpenID auto-generated by Emailtoid. Emailtoid is not intended to serve as a full-featured OpenID provider, and we encourage using an OpenID from a third-party OpenID provider.
  5. In the case where users supply and verify their own OpenID, Emailtoid will create a 302 HTTP redirect removing Emailtoid from future interactions completely.

Should an email provider supply a discovery document after an Emailtoid mapping has been made, the new mapping will take precedence.

Opportunities and issues

The drive behind Emailtoid, again, is to reduce the friction of OpenID by reusing familiar identifiers (i.e. email addresses). Clearly the challenges of achieving OpenID adoption are not simply technological, and to a great degree rely on how the user experience needs to become more streamlined and deliver on the promise of greater security and convenience.

Therefore, if a service advertises that they support signing in with an email address, they must keep that promise.

Unfortunately, until all email providers do some kind of local resolution and OpenID authentication, we will need a centralized mapper such as Emailtoid to provide the fallback mapping. And therein lies the rub, defeating some of the distributed design of OpenID.

If anything, Emailtoid is intended to drive forward a conversation about the experience of OpenID, and about how we can make the protocol compatible with, or complementary to, existing and well-known means of identifying oneself on the web. Is it a final solution? Probably not — but it’s up, it’s running, it works and it forces us now to look critically at the question of emails as OpenIDs, now that we can actually experience the flow, and the feeling, of entering an email address into an OpenID box without ever having to enter, or create, another unnecessary password.

The OpenID mobile experience

Two days ago, Ma.gnolia launched their mobile version, and it’s pretty awesome (disclosure: Ma.gnolia is a former client and current friend/partner of Citizen Agency).

In the course of development, Larry asked me what he thought he should do about adding OpenID sign-in to the mobile version. He was reluctant to do so because, he reasoned, the experience of logging in sucks, not just because of the OpenID round-trip dance, but because most identity providers don’t actually support a mobile-friendly interface.

Indeed, if you take a look at the flow from the Ma.gnolia mobile UI to my OpenID provider (using the iPhone simulator app), you can see that it does suck.

Mobile Ma.gnoliaiPhoney OpenID Verification

I strongly encourage Larry to go ahead and add OpenID even if the flow isn’t ideal. As it is, you can sign up to Ma.gnolia with only an OpenID (without a need for creating yet another username and password) and so without offering this login option, the mobile site would be off-limits to folks in this situation.

So there’s clearly an opportunity here, and I’m hoping that out of OpenIDDevCamp today, we can start to develop some best practices and interface guidelines for OpenID providers for the mobile flow (not to mention more generally).

If you’ve seen a good example of an OpenID (or roundtrip authentication flow) for mobile, leave a comment here and let me know. It’s hard to get screenshots of this stuff, so any pointers would be appreciated!