Sunday, November 22, 2009

Identity and the browser

Identity is a big problem on the web. People have to set up endless usernames and passwords for each website, type the same basic information (name, address etc) into each one, remember passwords and change them regularly, and a hundred other tasks.

Recently there have been some improvements. OpenID has emerged as a standard way to assert identity, and oAuth a secure way to share personal data from one website to another. Google Friend Connect and Facebook Connect have emerged as identity hubs to enable users to share basic information.

Despite these breakthroughs, the problems remain. In fact, Google Friend Connect and Facebook Connect raise the spectre of monolithic corporate control over people’s identities.

Instead, I think much of identity should belong in the browser itself. After all, the technical term for a browser is “user agent”. It knows exactly which websites you are logging on to, and how. It should be able to negotiate account details and passwords on the user’s behalf.

Here are some of the aspects of identity I think browsers should handle:

  • Log on to websites automatically for you, managing passwords and automatically changing them regularly
  • Managing basic account data e.g. name, address, bank details, etc, and which websites have access to it
  • Presence & syndicating it to websites chosen by the user
  • Incoming notifications & managing who can trigger them

Mozilla have recently begun work on several of these areas. I think that’s a great move; as a non-profit dedicated to improving the web, they have the right attitude and trust. This could go in two directions; either corporate control over people’s identities, or enabling users to get better control themselves over their online identity. I sincerely hope it’s the latter!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chrome OS and Android

I was surprised when Android was announced, because it didn't seem to fit with Google's principles. Not only was it client software, not cloud software to which Google had previously confined themselves, but it also created a new platform, separate to the web.

Google's search and ads have tied its fortunes to the web, and their management knows it. They dominate their industry so much that the only way to increase their revenues is to get more people using the web all the time. To achieve this, they they need not only to innovate themselves with web apps such as Google Maps or Gmail, but to nurture an ecosystem of Silicon Valley startups to work on web applications rather than on any other platform. They do this using a combination of Google Ads (providing revenues to startups), funding browser developers such as Mozilla, web developer evangelisation (such as spreading the word about Ajax) and careful purchases of the best startups.

Since Android was announced, this focus on the web has increased. Recently Google announced it is putting all its energies behind HTML5, to bring new capabilities to the platform such as video, geolocation and graphics. They have created a new browser, Chrome, and promoted it hugely on the Google homepage.

So why on earth create a new mobile operating system? Now they have to build a new developer ecosystem using the Android Marketplace. These aren't web apps, therefore Google doesn't get the same search or ad revenue. And it takes the focus in Silicon Valley away from the web.

Of course, there were good reasons for Android at the time - fixing the lack of good competition for Apple, persuading the network operators to invest in data networks, and attempting to fix the broken industry structure especially in the US. And Android is increasingly successful. But I still believe that it's the wrong solution for Google to the original problem.

Now Chrome OS is about to be released. It's another client OS, but this time the operating system is simply a web browser. No distractions from the web, no separate platforms, but still a way to shakeup the computing industry in Google's favour.

For once, I think Steve Ballmer was correct about Chrome OS - "It’s incompatible with the one operating system they have shipped. To me, still, I don’t understand why they needed another one. They must have gotten the first one wrong."

Despite it's current success, I think they did get Android wrong. There must be some huge arguments within Google about the correct model, but Chrome OS is the one that fits with the rest of the company. Time only will tell how the two operating systems sit together, but I wouldn't bet on Android surviving for longer than it takes to get Chrome OS powerful enough to drive a phone.