Sun Microsystems Inc., along with dozens of partners from the high-tech, financial, automotive and travel industries, on Wednesday announced the creation of a new group dedicated to developing an interoperable network identity technology.
The new coalition, known as the Liberty Alliance Project, means to compete directly with Microsoft Corp.s Passport identity service and is billing itself as an open, interoperable alternative.
"Our goal is interoperability. We want to have an open specification," said Jeff Veis, senior director of business alliances at Sun, based in Palo Alto, Calif. "Right now, the cellular carriers, the banks--all of these operate as their own little islands and have their own authentication schemes."
The new project has drawn wide support from across several industries, and its charter members include Bank of America, i2 Corp., General Motors Corp., RSA Security Inc., Entrust Inc., American Airlines and Verisign Inc.
What form the new service will take is still undetermined, but alliance officials said they hope to have a solid working specification by the end of this year. While they stopped short of calling the Liberty Alliance a response to Passport, Sun officials said the coalition was put together just within the last 60 days and that it would welcome input from all interested parties, including Microsoft.
Passport has drawn the ire of privacy advocates and consumer groups, who fear that Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., will use the data that it collects from users for marketing purposes. The company has denied that this is the case.
In response to Suns announcement, Microsofts PR machine went into full battle mode, even going so far as to send reporters a list of questions to ask Sun executives, a tactic that has backfired on the company before.
Predictably, Microsoft Group Vice President of Platforms Jim Allchin views the Sun initiative as sniping.
"I have not seen their announcement, but my initial reaction is Sun is late to the party," Allchin said as he talked up Passports planned compatibility with other digital identity technologies. Suns announcement, he added, is a reaction to the inroads Microsoft has made with Passport.
"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?" Allchin asked.
He rejected the idea that Passport, while it is exclusively Microsoft technology, is a closed system. "We have been on path [using] Kerberos the way you do federations inside a company that talk to Passport [on the outside]."
The other members of the Liberty Alliance, meanwhile, seem to be focusing on getting a technology developed and deployed rather than on political catfights.
"The lack of interoperability [among authentication systems] is one of the biggest impediments to doing business for us," said Tim Arnault, CIO of Bank of America, based in Charlotte, N.C.
Additional reporting by John Dodge