The more I learn about OpenID, the more it reminds me of XML in that it is a suboptimal solution to the primary problem people are using it to solve. Recently I've seen OpenID geeks berating large vendors like Microsoft, Yahoo and Google for the way they've incorrectly implemented OpenID. Looking at these situations it has become clear that the problem OpenID solves is actually different from the problem these companies are trying to solve.

What OpenID Gives Us

So what is the problem that OpenID solves? For this I'll go back to one of the original emails on OpenID from it's founder Brad Fitzpatrick way back in 2005. In that email Brad wrote

So LiveJournal for user "bob" would positively assert the follow root URLs as being owned by bob:

And for those geeks out there with their own domain names (yes, I'm one, and you're one, but we're not the common case), you either run your own identity server, or you use somebody else's that's paranoid. For example, LiveJournal's would only assert off-site URLs which come to us with a rel="me" type of deal (not using XFN) as we currently do,with ljuser_sha1=9233b6f5388d6867a2a7be14d8b4ba53c86cfde2

OpenID is all about confirming that a user "owns" a URI. The expectation is that users have a URI that they have memorized and enter it into sites that support OpenID (i.e. Relying Parties) so that they can be authenticated. This breaks down in a number of situations.

  • Users of email services don't have a URI that they own, they have an email address.
  • Some users of social networking sites may have a URI but they don't have it memorized. for example I don't know anyone who has memorized the URL to their Facebook profile. Mine is for anyone interested.

As different Web vendors have begun implementing OpenID, they've began to run into situations where OpenID's design breaks down for their users. Unsurprisingly a number of OpenID proponents have described these issues as usability issues as opposed to design problems.

Google's OpenID Woes

The most notorious example of a mainstream vendor colliding with the design mismatch between OpenID and their target domain is Google's implementation of OpenID. In a post entitled Google Abandons Standards, Forks OpenID we have the following excerpt

whatever it is that Google has released support for, it sure as hell isn’t OpenID, as they even so kindly point out in their OpenID developer documentation (that media outlets certainly won’t be reading):

  1. The web application asks the end user to log in by offering a set of log-in options, including Google.
  2. The user selects the "Sign in with Google" option.
  3. The web application sends a "discovery" request to Google to get information on the Google authentication endpoint. This is a departure from the process outlined in OpenID 1.0. [Emphasis added]
  4. Google returns an XRDS document, which contains endpoint address.
  5. The web application sends a login authentication request to the Google endpoint address.
  6. This action redirects the user to a Google Federated Login page.

As Google points out, this isn’t OpenID. This is something that Google cooked up that resembles OpenID masquerading as OpenID since that’s what people want to see – and that’s what Microsoft announced just the day before.

It’s not just a “departure” from OpenID, it’s a whole new standard.

With OpenID, the user memorizes a web URI, and provides it to the sites he or she would like to sign in to. The site then POSTs an OpenID request to that URI where the OpenID backend server proceeds to perform the requested authentication.

In Google’s version of the OpenID “standard,” users would enter their email addresses in the OpenID login box on OpenID-enabled sites, who would then detect that a Google email was entered. The server then requests permission from Google to use the OpenID standard in the first place by POSTing an XML document to Google’s “OpenID” servers. If Google decides it’ll accept the request from the server, it’ll return an XML document back to the site in question that contains a link to the actual OpenID URI for the email account in question.

The key problem Google had with their OpenID implementation is that they want their users to log-in with information they know (i.e. their gmail address) instead of some made up URL that is their Google OpenID identifier. Since only the Über geeks in their user base would know their Google OpenID URL if they went with that approach. With Google's approach meant that only sites that had been hardcoded to support Google's flavor of OpenID would be supported.

Thankfully, the outcry from the OpenID community was heard by the folks at Google and they've reversed their decision. Instead they will support OpenID discovery on and so users just have to know that domain name and then the OpenID authentication process kicks off from there. The intent is for Google's OpenID implementation to eventually mirror the functionality of Yahoo's OpenID implementation. 

It Isn't Over Yet

It should be noted that as Google aspires to have an OpenID implementation that is as compliant as Yahoo's, OpenID experts have also criticized Yahoo's implementation. Specifically Sam Ruby in his post OpenId Minus Id Equals Wide Open writes

Martin Atkins: Yahoo!'s OP and now it seems Microsoft’s OP both ignore the value of openid.identity provided to them, and just return an assertion for whatever user’s logged in.

I may ultimately need to black-list such ids.

Looking at instructions:

At any Web site that supports OpenID 2.0, type in the OpenID login box to sign in to that site by means of your Windows Live ID OpenID alias.

If everybody uses the same URI, I can’t tell them apart.  That doesn’t concern me much, but do find it a bit distressing that that’s the recommended usage.

The problem goes back to the original role of OpenID as being a way for a user to claim that they own a URI. As Sam points out, some of the techniques being used to "improve usability" now run counter to the spirit of the original specification. 

Only time will tell if by the time all is said and done, it won't seem like we've been trying to shove a square peg in a round hole all these years.

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