Yesterday I tried logging into a service I hadn’t visited in a while. I couldn’t remember my user name or password. After a few frustrating and unsuccessful attempts I gave up. Recognize this? Happens to me all the time. Currently, my best bet is to search my mailbox to see if I can find the information I need to get access to services.
It is a problem we all face. For safety and security reasons we need to have unique ID’s and hard to remember passwords. But humanly it is nearly impossible to remember all these combinations. There are tools out there that help your resolve this issue (take 1password as an example). But the tools mask the underlying problem. Why do I need a new online identity for each new service I sign up for?
OpenID addresses this problem. It let’s you sign in to different services using one identity. Several big sites, including Facebook, now support OpenID. You can now, for example, use your mail account to get access to Facebook.
To me, OpenID only solves the initial problem that I described above. It provides me a simple way to get access to different services, without the need for me to remember user names or passwords. But I would like to take it a few steps further. If I can have one identity, securely stored, and usable across different services, then why not store my online profile there as well?
Every service I sign up for requires me to reveal some aspects about myself. It could be anything ranging from name, address, phone, gender, birth date, icons, preferences for movies, books, friends. It could be information linked to my profession, to my free time. I need to set preferences. How open do I want my data to be? There is privacy settings to consider, e-mail addresses to be filled in. The list is endless. The problem is that this information doesn’t change all that often. I might decide that I want to reveal more or less of myself but all this information is stored (in my head, my computer, my address book etc).
But each of these services force me to enter this information in order to serve me a better experience. It’s no fun on Facebook if you do not indicate who your friends are. At the same time, the fight over data has become an important economic factor. Services exist and have economic viability if they can ‘own’ my data. This economic force creates the boundaries often referred to as walled gardens. By locking in users, services can fire up their economic engine. By locking in more users and more data the engine continues to run. While it seems to make perfect sense to have one identity and profile across different services we have to understand that the economic reality of today is that there is no business model available that supports such a radical change. In other words, companies like Facebook will have a hard time justifying their economic value if they didn’t lock in users and own their data.
Technically, by swapping the current balance of power from the service provider to the user we could easily solve this one identity – one profile issue.The Diso project, started by Chris Messina, tries to address these issues. However, this balance of power can’t be swapped until someone figures out a way to make it economically justifiable to do so. I’m sure service providers are willing to do the right thing, but only if it positively affects their bottom line. It is my believe that we need to solve this economic problem first, before we can solve the one identity – one profile problem. A User-Centric web will only be conceived if it is accompanied by business models allowing service providers to generate revenues without being in control of the user’s data.
The value for the user is evident. Instead of monetizing networks, the service provider needs to monetize user value. Instead of focus on growth, there will be focus on user value. Service providers wont be competing on ‘who is the biggest’ but they will have to compete on delivering value. I’ve been complaining a lot about service providers locking users in, about not respecting privacy, or control over user data. But I’ve come to realise that it isn’t fair to be complaining about this, if we don’t address the economic issue at the same time. If we can develop business models that facilitate a User-Centric web, we will have optimal conditions to make it happen. This is a case where economic innovation needs to proceed technological innovation. Forget about technology for now. We already have the technological capabilities to make it happen. We need smart people to focus on defining the business models that will enable this transition to happen.