What's the difference between Live Free or Die style independence and acting like Lady Gaga posturing in a dress made of meat? It could be economic viability, if you're a tech startup.
Long one of the most visible leaders of the open, federated identity technology OpenID, Portland, Oregon startup Janrain announced tonight that it has raised $15 million to build itself into a leading provider of identity management, for big branded websites seeking to leverage big brands of tech ID like Facebook Connect, Twitter and Google. The Wild West had terrible UX and never caught on like the dreamers dreamed. Now Janrain is building a business with OpenID in the background, almost just out of politeness it seems. Big ID has won and Janrain is serving it up on sites like CitySearch, MTV, NPR and yes, LadyGaga.com.
OpenID was supposed to be a way for users to control our own identities and the payload of data that rode along with those identities as we logged into and used sites around the Web. The vision may or may not have been hopelessly idealistic, but it seems clear that the implementation was deeply flawed. Note: Many people disagreed with me on all this in comments below. I'm just calling it like I see it, you tell me how you see it.
I wouldn't presume to know how it could have been implemented any better, but I wrote in great detail about the failures of OpenID and Janrain's leadership of it nearly 4 years ago. Poor user experience, uninspired design, ineffective explanation of the value proposition and widespread technical community infighting were among the causes of death.
Today OpenID is rarely talked about, except in obscure corners like Portland's recent IndieWebCamp, where registration was only allowed if you could log-in with a website that you owned yourself and had tied delegated OpenID credentials to. I don't know how that event went, but the barrier to entry seems so absurdly principalled (if well intentioned!) that it may have been too dorky and demanding for even an episode of Portlandia. (I'll show you a bird you can put on it, you lovable, if obnoxious, dorks.)
If I'm wrong about this, then the place to look may be the OpenID Foundation. But that organization's "Committee to coordinate adoption, usability and marketing strategies" hasn't had an email posted to its email list in a year this month.
Now Janrain is pointed in the opposite direction. When you land on a site that uses the new Janrain Engage technology, you're invited to log in first with Facebook, then Twitter, Google, Yahoo, MySpace, PayPal (who would login with PayPal? I can't imagine) and then OpenID later down the road.
The company then captures the payload of data associated with your authenticated identity and helps the customer manage that data. It's the promise of Data Portability, but delivered by the big centralized vendors instead of by free people with their own little corners of the internet. In some cases the end result may be to the user's benefit, but Janrain likes to talk about how useful that data is to marketers.
I love my corner of the internet, but let's be honest: I log into websites with my branded IDs. I am a slave to the man. I also wrote this post while drinking kombucha down the street from the old Alberta Street Clown House, fwiw.
As Janrain's new millions were talked about in the tech press tonight, poor old OpenID hardly got a mention. Mike Rogoway wrote in Portland's Oregonian that Janrain faced "slow growth" when focused on the open technical protocol. GigaOm's Colleen Taylor said Janrain "makes a software platform inspired by the OpenID protocol." Liz Gannes said "online identities used to be a niche cause full of acronyms and hypotheticals." (Ouch.) VentureBeat's coverage didn't even mention OpenID.
Oh well, people certainly tried. And other people will try again. Mozilla's BrowserID might work, it's said to have a very smooth user experience and it's been quietly under development for years.
But things don't look so good for the very ambitious, widely discussed project called OpenID.