My RSS reader is buzzing with a lot hype around Facebook's Connect this morning. The lead story seems to be the New York Times article entitled Facebook Aims to Extend Its Reach Across the Web which announces that a number of popular sites are about to adopt the technology. The article is excerpted below
Facebook Connect, as the company’s new feature is called, allows its members to log onto other Web sites using their Facebook identification and see their friends’ activities on those sites. Like Beacon, the controversial advertising program that Facebook introduced and then withdrew last year after it raised a hullabaloo over privacy, Connect also gives members the opportunity to broadcast their actions on those sites to their friends on Facebook.
In the next few weeks, a number of prominent Web sites will weave this service into their pages, including those of the Discovery Channel and The San Francisco Chronicle, the social news site Digg, the genealogy network Geni and the online video hub Hulu.
MySpace, Yahoo and Google have all announced similar programs this year, using common standards that will allow other Web sites to reduce the work needed to embrace each identity system. Facebook, which is using its own data-sharing technology, is slightly ahead of its rivals.
This set of partners is definitely higher profile than the last list of Facebook Connect adopters and yet I still have to wonder how this is eventually going to shake out. Even with this set of partners there are still two big hurdles Facebook has to surmount. The first is just getting users to connect their identities on different sites with their Facebook identity. Just having the ability to connect a Digg account and a Facebook account doesn't mean users will adopt the feature. I assume this is why the Facebook Beacon automatically linked a user's account on a partner site to their Facebook account in the first place. How this is presented to users on participating sites will be key to its adoption and this is mostly out of Facebook's control.
The other challenge that Facebook Connect will face is how to prevent it from tarred with the same "centralized identity service" brush that Microsoft's Passport got tarred with at the turn of the century. Back in the year 2000, Joel Spolsky wrote Does Issuing Passports Make Microsoft a Country? which began as follows
Am I the only one who is terrified about Microsoft Passport? It seems to me like a fairly blatant attempt to build the world's largest, richest consumer database, and then make fabulous profits mining it. It's a terrifying threat to everyone's personal privacy and it will make today's "cookies" seem positively tame by comparison. The scariest thing is that Microsoft is advertising Passport as if it were a benefit to consumers, and people seem to be falling for it! By the time you've read this article, I can guarantee that I'll scare you into turning off your Hotmail account and staying away from MSN web sites.
These sentiments never went away and by 2005 Microsoft had lost some of its most prominent Passport partner sites. The service has since been rebranded Windows Live ID and is now primarily a unified identity system for Microsoft sites as opposed to being a single-sign on service for the entire Web. It may be that Microsoft was ahead of its time (as I've argued it was with Hailstorm and other initiatives) but the arguments against centralized identity systems have seemed pretty convincing in the past. In addition, I suspect that developers will start asking questions when they realize that they have to support one proprietary technology for Facebook Connect, something different for MySpace Data Availability and yet another for Google Friend Connect. How many sign-in buttons will end up adorning these sites? http://beta.citysearch.com already has two sign-in links, will that expand to four as they move to support signing in with your MySpace account and your Google Friend Connect-enabled account? Or will services decide to pick a social network to side with to the exclusion of all others? It's beginning to remind me of the high definition DVD format wars and not in a good way.
Interesting times indeed.
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