The team behind Mozilla's Firefox browser announced today the availability of experimental code that website owners can add to their pages to allow site visitors to create an account, log-in or switch users with just a few simple clicks and no password to remember.

The unveiling comes a week after Facebook fired a big shot across the web, staking a claim as the dominant provider of one-click portable identity. These two technologies seem aimed right at each other and engineers at both companies have no doubt been following each others' work closely.

The Mozilla technology is called Account Manager and is intended to become an open specification that any other browser can build on top of as well. Supporting browsers will automatically generate and remember diverse, high-strength passwords for users and allow multiple users to switch easily between accounts when visiting common websites on one computer. The interface mock-ups looks really nice, too.

Account Manager is currently available as an experimental plug-in, primarily for developers to test with, but project leaders say they "are looking to ship this feature as soon as possible in Firefox."

Mozilla's Dan Mills says "the final feature will almost certainly not look like this - it's just to give you an idea." But it certainly does look exciting. A feature like this would make new account creation super fast, it would eliminate the need to remember your passwords and it would make it safer to use web apps. That could be just the beginning, too: identity is more than just a username and password. There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to carry all kinds of payload with you (tastes, contact info, etc.) when you navigate the web with your browser.

Hopefully Chrome will institute support for this same code quickly. The browser is a very logical place to transport log-in info. "The browser also has deep knowledge about the user," says Mozilla. "For example, the browser could implement fast user switching with just a click. Or think about picking a username: the browser can look at usernames for other accounts and make some pretty good guesses about what usernames are preferred."

The ability to easily manage multiple identities is big, too. That's something that Facebook doesn't offer, but it's important when it comes to choice, freedom and privacy.

Challenging Facebook

One year ago we wrote that the most viable challenger to Facebook's fast growing domination of the web could be Firefox, not another social network. Firefox had more users at the time (270 million vs Facebook's then 200 million), but Facebook has doubled its user numbers in the last year alone.

Facebook launched a jaw dropping number and scope of new portable identity technologies last week.

Here's what we wrote a year ago about these two companies going head to head.

Why compare user numbers between a browser and a social network? Because there's every reason to believe that the two technologies are converging in the near term future. ...

Though we may not be sure about his prediction that Google will act before Firefox, we think Forrester's Jeremiah Owyang offers a very compelling vision of the future of browsers and social networks in his excellent report The Future of the Social Web.

'... in a bid to extend the reach of its new browser, Chrome, we expect Google to build OpenID and its associated friend connections into the browser; look for Firefox and eventually Internet Explorer to copy this feature. Facebook and MySpace will also likely build a way for users to surf the Web within the Facebook experience, retaining the social functionality. These connections won't be perfect, but they'll allow social networks to colonize communities and other parts of the Web, extending their experience out to other sites through the shared ID. As a result, in two years, portable identities will become a ubiquitous part of the online experience as they reach maturity.'

It's only logical to extrapolate from that analysis that the line between browsers and social networks will become much less clear and the two types of software will very likely compete with each other."

Click here to read the rest of our analysis of things changing about Firefox that point towards its importance in the world of online identity.

Who do you want to carry your identity around the web for you? How about a nice open source browser, built on open standards, supporting multiple identities and strong security? That sounds better to me than putting Facebook in charge. Despite all Facebook does for hundreds of millions of people, putting our entire portable identity into one company's hands is just too dangerous. Of course if it's quick and easy browser-level identity you want, don't forget about the "Facebook browser" called RockMelt that Netscape founder Marc Andreessen is backing and that we broke the news about last Summer. Last we heard, that super stealthy company was still hiring.

Let's see some more competition on the browser level! This time with portable data and a world of web applications at the heart of the battle.