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.”

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