Login with Facebook as .NET Passport V2, essentially

(Full disclosure: this blogger worked on Passport and its later incarnation Windows Live ID.)

Facebook is close to accomplishing what Microsoft set out to do with .NET Passport in the late 90s: become an identity provider trusted by the majority of popular websites.While recent usage/adoption statistics are difficult to come by, the increasing number of “login with Facebook” buttons popping up on sites ranging from Remember The Milk  to KickStarter suggests that companies representing all types of business segments are on board.

Facebook login may also the lone success story for identity federation– or to be more precise, federation in the consumer space. The enterprise scenario has received far more attention and enjoys an abundance of commercial solutions designed to solve a well-defined problem: employee Alice working at medium/large enterprise, typically a Windows shop running Active Directory, wants to use some cloud provider such as Salesforce. Main requirement is for Alice to login to that external resources using her existing Windows domain credentials, without managing a different username/password. SAML and its more Redmond-centric counterpart WS-Trust have been used with varying degrees of success to bridge that gap. What has never worked reliably is the consumer equivalent of that scenario: Alice using her Yahoo account to login to Twitter for example. There are isolated cases of interoperability, such as Remember The Milk also accepting login with Google identities, via combination of OpenID and oauth. But these are the happy exceptions. For the most part, each cloud provider stands in its own island of identity, with occasional one-off agreements and forays into federation experiments.

Except for Facebook. Starting with Facebook Connect, the service has seen increasing adoption of its identity system, with little under the guise of adding social features to websites. This is a far cry from the response to Passport when MSFT started pitching it around. Conceived from the beginning as an identity provider for the entire Internet– as opposed to merely all Microsoft properties, which would have been ambitious enough–  the service had little adoption. Expedia, originally spun out of MSFT, and eBay were among the few large sites accepting Passport logon along side their own identities. (Expedia would later phase out the service.) It was not for lack of trying either, at least on the Windows front.  For example, the IIS 6.0 web server in Windows Server 2003 had built-in support for Passport authentication at the HTTP level.

What was the difference? Several theories come to mind:

  • Better value proposition for relying parties. Passport provided identity and very little else. Granted there was an associated “profile” of user provided personal information. But there few forcing functions for that profile to be accurate (as opposed to “John Smith” living at zipcode 90210) comparable to the stringent real names requirement of Google Plus or the self-imposed convention followed by most Facebook users to represent their true name. Hailstorm aka .NET MyServices was the one ill-fated attempt by MSFT to attach large amounts of data and broker these to third-parties. That effort soon went up in flames. By contrast Facebook login brings an associated wealth of user-generated content, and even ability to post updates to the user timeline.
  • Fear of outsourcing in general. In this day and age of EC2 instances spun up on demand and sites scrapped together by mashing up third-party data feeds, it’s difficult to imagine a time when everyone insisted on running their own data-center and having full control of every feature in their service. That attitude, combined with an over-confidence that everything could be done better in house, predisposed developers against relying on some other authentication service. (The sheer number of password mishaps would prove them very wrong. It turns out the majority of those sites can better serve their users’ security if they delegate authentication to more competent entities.)
  • Fear of MSFT in particular. With diversified business interests in operating systems, productivity software, servers, gaming and entertainment, it is easy for any given website to consider MSFT a competitor, and shy away from entrusting a critical business function to the one company they are most concerned about.
  • Privacy concerns. Plenty of FUD, culminating with an EPIC complaint to FTC and other privacy advocacy groups did not help the matter. Facebook has arguably displaced MSFT as the great privacy boogeyman of the decade, but this was not true when Facebook Connect debuted in 2008, before the company got embroiled in multiple rounds of controversy around privacy of it own making.
  • Lack of standardization. Passport started out with a proprietary protocol, partly because there were few good options available for a web-based protocol that did not require changes to the web browser. Later Kerberos support was added but the corresponding functionality in browsers lagged behind. In principle Passport service could server as a Kerberos Domain Controller (KDC) compatible with Windows, and users could use Kerberos via the negotiate package supported by IE But the user experience for that would have been very restricted– it is a native dialog from the OS– compared to the full control that an HTML page gives the website for customizing the login experience. In any case WS-Trust and SAML followed soon with browser-aware profiles, and a few years later came the backlash against angle-brackets in the form of OpenID and Oauth. Facebook login is built on Oauth2.
  • Finally, one can’t rule out the passage of time helping out. Federated login was a foreign concept in 2000. It confused users: people had become so accustomed to having different identities at every site that they no longer expected their Hotmail credentials could also get them into their instant messaging client. Web site designers meanwhile had very little incentive to fix that, so they continued to put their own identity system front and center while offering federated login half-heartedly as a hidden option that required jumping through hoops. (Reflecting that lack of confidence, they hedged their bets and often required even federated users to also register a “native” account just in case the external identity system disappears overnight.)


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