America Online Inc. late last week informally launched what appeared to be its long anticipated "Magic Carpet" sign-in service. Officially called dubbed Screen Name Service, the service combines the screen name sign-ins of AOLs America Online, CompuServe 2000, AOL Instant Messenger, Netscape, and NetBusiness into one unified authentication system.
The Screen Name Service is AOLs latest addition to its arsenal of products and services designed to fiercely compete with Microsoft Corp.s .NET and MSN Internet services. Specifically, the Screen Name Service is up against Microsofts .NET Passport service, which has been implemented by many sites including Starbucks.com and Microsoft-owned Expedia.com and all of MSN.
In October, AOL released its "AOL Alerts" service enabling cell phones and AOL Instant Messenger to receive the latest news, weather, sports and stock reports. That launch was just months after Microsoft announced its .NET Alerts, which perform mainly the same function.
"AOLs entry is certainly a validation of the belief that single sign-on has a role in enabling a more convenient, friction-free experience on the internet In response to the new service," said Microsofts Erin Cullen, Product Manager for .NET Services.
Cullen said since its launch in 1999, Passport accounts have grown to 200 million resulting in over 3.5 billion authentications per month.
According to various AOL statistics, the user base for the Screen Name Service is at least 175 million users, combining the AOL and CompuServe membership with AOL Instant Messenger and Netscape.com registrations.
It is not yet clear whether the Screen Name Service will be compatible with the fledgling Liberty Alliance, the independent single sign-in service consortium started by Sun Microsystems, of which AOL is a member.
David Smith, an analyst with Gartner, was puzzled by the lack of clarity behind AOLs strategy, saying, "AOL has joined the Liberty Alliance, but they havent really explained what that means."
The Screen Name Service has not yet reached as many partner Web sites as the Passport service, but as for properties participating in the service, AOL lists mainly AOL Time Warner Web properties, such as Harry Potter, Looney Tunes, and Netscape. AOL also has a long list of sites that are "Coming Soon," like FedEx and NBA.com.
Giga Group analyst Rob Enderle told eWEEK, "[the Screen Name Service] will certainly help drive the AOL service. AOL customers will have an easier path to those sites, but at the end of the day those sites want to do business with everyone."
But Enderle was skeptical that the Screen Name Service would sweep the market. "You would expect the sites to accept Yahoo or Microsofts technology as well," he said. "Its similar to if you want to take Visa, MasterCard, or American Express. You dont want to risk losing a customer over a technology."
"The implementation looks to be very similar to the Yahoo! Wallet," he added.
Other analysts were more critical of single sign-in services in general, including Passport. "Microsoft has been pushing people to sign up for not just Passport but also the Wallet," Jupiter Media Metrixs Rob Leathern said. "At this point people do not make enough online purchases with sites that are partners to make it worth the average consumers time to sign up for this."
Leathern noted that consumers have been cool towards Passport as well as AOLs previous "wallet" services. "Theyve been trying to push things like AOL Quick Checkout for quite some time, and theres been so little consumer traction," he said. "Now with the success of AOL Instant Messenger they are looking to reignite interest in multi-site products."
America Online did not respond to requests for comment by press time.