John McCrea of Plaxo has written a cleverly titled guest post on TechCrunchIT, Facebook Connect and OpenID Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”, where he makes the argument that Facebook Connect is a competing technology to OpenID but the situation is complicated by Facebook developers engaging in discussions with the OpenID. He writes

You see, it’s been about a month since the first implementation of Facebook Connect was spotted in the wild over at CBS’s celebrity gossip site, Want to sign up for the site? Click a single button. A little Facebook window pops up to confirm that you want to connect via your Facebook account. One more click – and you’re done. You’ve got a new account, a mini profile with your Facebook photo, and access to that subset of your Facebook friends who have also connected their accounts to TheInsider. Oh, and you can have your activities on TheInsider flow into your Facebook news feed automatically. All that, without having to create and remember a new username/password pair for the site. Why, it’s just like the vision for OpenID and the Open Stack – except without a single open building block under the hood!
After the intros, Allen Tom of Yahoo, who organized the event, turned the first session over Max Engel of MySpace, who in turn suggested an alternative – why not let Facebook’s Julie Zhuo kick it off instead? And for the next hour, Julie took us through the details of Facebook Connect and the decisions they had to make along the way to get the user interface and user experience just right. It was not just a presentation; it was a very active and engaged discussion, with questions popping up from all over the room. Julie and the rest of the Facebook team were engaged and eager to share what they had learned.

What the heck is going on here? Is Facebook preparing to go the next step of open, switching from the FB stack to the Open Stack? Only time will tell. But one thing is clear: Facebook Connect is the best thing ever for OpenID (and the rest of the Open Stack). Why? Because Facebook has set a high bar with Facebook Connect that is inspiring everyone in the open movement to work harder and faster to bring up the quality of the UI/UX for OpenID and the Open Stack.

There are a number of points worth discussing from the above excerpt. The first is the implication that OpenID is an equivalent technology to Facebook Connect. This is clearly not the case. OpenID just allows you to delegate to act of authenticating a user to another website so the user doesn't need to create credentials (i.e. username + password) on your site. OpenID alone doesn't get you the user's profile data nor does it allow you to pull in the authenticated user's social graph from the other site or publish activities to their activity feed. For that, you would need other other "Open brand" technologies like OpenID Attribute Exchange, Portable Contacts and OpenSocial. So it is fairer to describe the contest as Facebook Connect vs. OpenID + OpenID Attribute Exchange + Portable Contacts + OpenSocial.

The question then is who should we root for? At the end of the day, I don't think it makes a ton of sense for websites to have to target umpteen different APIs that do the same thing instead of targeting one standard implemented by multiple services. Specifically, it seems ridiculous to me that will have to code against Facebook Connect to integrate Facebook accounts into their site but code against something else if they want to integrate MySpace accounts and yet another API if they want to integrate LinkedIn accounts and so on. This is an area that is crying out for standardization.

Unfortunately, the key company providing thought leadership in this area is Facebook and for now they are building their solution with proprietary technologies instead of de jure or de facto ("Open brand") standards. This is unsurprising given that it takes three or four different specs in varying states of completeness created by different audiences deliver the scenarios they are currently interested in. What is encouraging is that Facebook developers are working with OpenID implementers by sharing their knowledge. However OpenID isn't the only technology needed to satisfy this scenario and I wonder if Facebook will be similarly engaged with the folks working on Portable Contacts and OpenSocial.

Facebook Connect is a step in the right direction when it comes to bringing the vision of social network interoperability to fruition. The key question is whether we will see effective open standards emerge that will target the same scenarios [which eventually even Facebook could adopt] or whether competitors will offer their own proprietary alternatives? So far it sounds like the latter is happening which means unnecessary reinvention of the wheel for sites that want to support "connecting" with multiple social networking sites.

PS: If OpenID phishing is a concern now when the user is redirected to the ID provider's site to login, it seems Facebook Connect is even worse since all it does is provide a pop over. I wonder if this is because the Facebook folks think the phishing concerns are overblown.

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