Sun Microsystems today launched a consumer-oriented Liberty Alliance to supply online user identification and authorization standards to compete with Microsofts Passport.
No mention was made of Passport in the hour-long press conference, until a questioner referred to "the unnamed elephant in the room."
The alliance included Bank of America, Nokia, Fidelity Investments, General Motors, American and United Airlines, Vodaphone, the Travelocity and Sabre airline reservations systems, eBay, Sony and Schlumberger, among others. Primary technical companies included Cisco Systems, RSA Security, RealNetworks, Cingular Wireless, and the Apache Software Foundation.
Sun officials said the alliance, with its existing user ID and authentication systems, represented over one billion consumers. The goal of the Liberty Alliance (www.libertyalliance.org) is to provide the standards that allow them to hook up their systems together, and let one trusted authentication provider supply the user ID for what might be multiple site visits or transactions.
Microsoft proposed last week that suppliers of online services and transactions use Passport as a common source of user IDs, and threw its service open to any party that wishes to participate in it through the Kerberos security system, an open standard.
Sun Senior Vice President of Strategy and Planning Jonathan Schwartz said Microsoft was not really offering an open system, particularly since it had altered its version of Kerberos in Windows 2000 to make it Windows-specific.
Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin responded, "I dont know why people have formed this ill-formed perspective that all digital IDs are going to be in Passport. Do you think all governments are going to put digital IDs into Passport?"
Microsofts upcoming release of Windows XP incorporates Passport as a proposed single user sign on for the system on which its installed.
Technical details of the Liberty Alliance were scant. Though RSA Security is a member, that doesnt mean that an RSA Security product would be needed to implement a Liberty Alliance form of user authentication, said Schwartz.
"No one company has all the resources to dictate what happens to user authentication in the auto industry," said General Motors Chief Technology Officer Tony Scott.
Sun CEO Scott McNealy said he invited Microsoft to join the Liberty Alliance and the group would make sure "it remains an open and compliant standard for all our competitors as well."
The group is not proposing a new method of executing a single Internet user sign-on so much as defining pathways between existing user authentication systems so that one of them may serve as the user authorizer for several systems, Schwartz said.
"The announcement has a tone of sour grapes to it," noted Charles King, analyst with the Segaza Group, a successor to the former Zona Research. "Theyre getting together to hammer out a roadmap at a time when Windows XP is about to be released. It may be too little, too late," he said.