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The Open Source Answer to Microsoft InfoCard

It's a familiar equation. For every Microsoft technology, there is an open source answer to counter it.

Earlier this week, IBM, Novell, startup Parity Communications and Harvard's Internet research group unveiled an effort to let Net users manage and manipulate their personal identity information online.

Project Higgins is a framework that will let computer users and businesses integrate identity, profile and relationship information across disparate systems, such as Windows, Linux and other environments.

IBM, Novell and Parity are contributing code to the project, which was started at Eclipse as a collaboration led by SocialPhysics.org at Harvard's Berkman Center and is designed to communicate with Web services protocols.

Higgins comes at a time when computer users are clamoring for more control over the way their personal information, anything from credit card numbers and Social Security numbers to medical records and bank accounts, is used on the Web.

Higgins is the open source sector's answer to Microsoft's InfoCard identity management technology for letting users control their own information within Windows-based systems.

Forrester Research analyst Michael Gavin called Higgins an interesting answer to InfoCard, backed by solid technologists.

But in a way, Higgins participants face a tougher challenge in getting the software to work with all operating systems and environments, as opposed to InfoCard's Windows focus, Gavin said.

"In a sense, it's also looking at a bigger problem, which in some ways makes it more challenging for them," Gavin said. "There are tough problems to solve here. And it's easier to solve those problems while you're in a more constrained environment like Microsoft."

Gavin also wondered how many people want to bother managing this information when they don't even make sure their PCs have the most current firewall, antivirus and antispam technologies.

"What's the incentive now? People are upset that their information is being shared with people they wouldn't share it with and it's being exposed to criminals and ID thefts," Gavin said.

"It's like an electronic wallet. People are going to have to match all of their different identities, credit cards, Social Security, medical information. People are going to have to be educated and take accountability for that info and make sure that it's configured right."

Another challenge is that Microsoft is far ahead of Higgins with its InfoCard technology. It could be a matter of whoever crosses the finish line first with a workable product that consumers and businesses will choose.

However, Gavin acknowledged that some people won't want to be locked into Microsoft, which could make Higgins their choice.

In the early going, Higgins has won the approval of some privacy watchdogs, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"I hate to pigeon-hole EFF, but really, there's only one thing we would ever think of, and that is "YAY," said EFF Technology Manager Chris Palmer about Higgins. "Giving users power is what EFF is all about."

Despite the new competition, Microsoft was similarly supportive, if less enthusiastic, than Palmer. Microsoft was invited but would not say if it planned to join Higgins.

"We welcome efforts by other vendors to participate in the open identity metasystem to provide users with a safer, more secure online experience," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement.

The spokesperson pointed out that InfoCard uses industry-standard Web services protocols for all communications to allow for broad interoperability.

While IBM officials admit that Higgins is an alternative to "proprietary architecture" -- meaning Microsoft -- they claim Higgins is more than that.

Raj Nagaratnum, chief identity architect at IBM, said Higgins is an example of a new evolution of the Internet, granting users more control over their information online instead of leaving it up to businesses to patrol.

He said this type of "user-centric" identity management should evolve into a new trend in Internet commerce.

"It used to be information sharing, then we started doing online transactions. It's now moving to collaborative computing and social networking," Nagaratnum said, pointing to the pervasiveness of wikis, blogs and social networking sites like LinkedIn.

The engineer said IBM plans to support Higgins with additions to its commercial Tivoli identity management software next year.

Burton Group analyst Mike Neuenschwander said IBM wanted to do something in this space and realized that InfoCard was not going to be a platform on which they could build.

"For one, they don't have access to the code," Neuenschwander said. "It's also very Windows-oriented. They looked around and decided Higgins was a decent place to land."

He also said doing it open source could make it easier to clear with privacy watchdogs, such as the EFF.

"It lets them come across as not trying to hide anything," the analyst said. "Open source was the place where IBM could take this where they wanted."