Can Sun Liberate you from your Passport?

Getting personal

Sun Microsystems and Microsoft have never really seen eye to eye. Sun proudly stood on the accusing side in the DOJ ruling. Then there is all the sniping about Java. Last, but by no means least, is the future.

Both companies know (although Microsoft was a little late off the starting blocks), that the future is Internet-shaped; they have lined up web services, Sun ONE and Microsoft .Net, to capture the hearts and minds of the business world.

At the core of both web services systems is the all-important security mechanism. Sun has formed the Liberty Alliance project, a collaboration of interested parties, while Microsoft continues to develop its already established Passport technology.

At the recent Oracle OpenWorld conference, Scott McNeally, Sun CEO and Chairman, was pleased to announce several new members of the Liberty Alliance project. Scott confirmed that American Express had joined and announced the newest member was Time Warner AOL together with its 32 million fee-paying subscribers. It expected that the next member will be a major Windows software company, quite a coup if it happens.

Sun started the Liberty Alliance earlier this year with initial support from security software companies and the airline and financial sectors. The project aims to provide a standard method for establishing a user's identity on the Internet through passwords or other security technology. While Sun has been keen to announce what the system does, the company is less forthcoming with details of how it does it.

Passport has a headstart with 200 million subscribers and is now included in Windows XP. Sun's response to Passport is that that Microsoft uses the system, which provides a single point of sign on, to collect user information using its .Net services which it then sells back to the user. In the past, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer has claimed, in his typically modest style, that the Liberty Alliance has "absolutely zero probability of mattering to the world". Perhaps Steve will be reconsidering his view in light of Amex's and AOL's joining.

The question has to be asked whether the Liberty Alliance has turned into a Microsoft-bashing tool. Just before the project was announced, Microsoft said it would open up Passport and accept alliances from other authentication systems. Sun is expected to announce further details on Liberty, including the all-important information on how the system will work, by the end of the year.

So, we'll just have to wait and see who wins the battles for maintaining our personal details online. In the meantime, we might want to speculate when Sun will be entering the games console market!

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