Microsoft, having been released recently from at least some of the uncertainty surrounding its antitrust appeal, is now steaming ahead with its plans to transform the computer industry. And finally, after more than 20 years of following others' leads, Microsoft might be out in front of everyone else now.
Microsoft has set its sights on what venture capitalist Clay Shirky has labeled "identity-centric" computing, or a model of computing and networking that depends more on an individual's identity than a computer's identity. This is a significant re-orientation of how people interact with computers and the Internet, although the concept is not new. But Microsoft is pursuing the identity-centric model on a scale never before attempted or imagined.
At the heart of all this is a relatively low-profile technology called Microsoft Passport. Passport is Microsoft's identity and authentication service, now about 2 years old but a feature expected to explode in growth and significance once the next version of Windows, Windows XP, is released this fall. Passport is one of the three core technologies of Microsoft's .Net strategy, which is the firm's plan to change itself from a products company to a services company.
Passport lets Web users create an online profile of personal information that can be used for online commerce, communication and other services. If an e-commerce site offers linkage to Microsoft's Passport service, then Internet users with Passport accounts can fill out forms, enter account names and passwords or pass on credit card information with a click of the mouse. This saves users from having to remember numerous log-in names and passwords for different Web sites, fill out forms multiple times or repeatedly enter their credit card numbers. In industry jargon, Passport is known as a "single sign-on" and "express buying" service.
But Microsoft has much broader ambitions.
Microsoft hopes that someday you'll be able to access everything you need to be productive on any computer or network device. You'll identify yourself using Microsoft Passport, and from then on you'll have access to all your files, software, passwords, calendars, address books, favorite Web sites and, using Passport Wallet services, all your credit card accounts. Passport will eventually be extended to mobile phones, hand-held computers, smart cards and everything else that connects with the Internet. Passport will be used as a way for people to find you too, such as through Windows Messenger, Microsoft's instant-messaging service.
There are competitors to Microsoft Passport--which, ironically, might help protect the company from more antitrust problems--such as Novell's DigitalMe (http://www.digitalme.com) and v-Go from Passlogix (http://www.passlogix.com). There is an Open Source effort called XNS, which stands for Extensible Name Service, developed and promoted by a company called OneName.com in Seattle. XNS is generating some interest within the field, but there are some uncertainties about the intellectual property status of its underlying technologies.
But Microsoft has a huge head start because Passport already has more than 125 million account holders--although most of them probably don't even know they have Passport accounts. Microsoft already has required Windows software developers to have Passport accounts, and the service will be embedded in Windows XP later this year and, eventually, in Microsoft's free e-mail service, HotMail. Privacy advocates have slammed Passport, but most Internet users do little to protect their privacy, and the convenience of Passport is likely to outweigh its threat to privacy for most Windows users. The main challenge Microsoft will have is to make Passport ultra-secure and reliable--any problems here will kill a large number of its long-range ambitions.
The advantages of identity-centric computing over machine-centric computing are obvious.
But the prospect of a company of the size and influence of Microsoft controlling the personal and financial information of hundreds of millions of people around the world is unsettling, to say the least.
And the idea that nearly every connection or transaction on the Internet would go through Microsoft is sure to spawn a backlash. Bill Gates sees this as a huge leap forward in convenience and power, but it's not surprising that others see it as a way to put a penny in his pocket every time a digital bit flips.
Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com.