OpenID Needs to Start Getting Real

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As we noted in our year-end round up, 2008 was a good year for OpenID on paper, but the emergence of other, corporate backed single sign-on products means icy waters ahead. Specifically, we’ve talked about Facebook Connect and why it might end up the winner because it makes sense to consumers, and comes with social data attached. For developers, Facebook Connect is attractive as well because it comes with a built in marketing channel — user actions on external sites using Connect can be reported back to their friends on Facebook via the news feed.

In order for OpenID to compete on this new playing field, the OpenID Foundation needs to stop dragging their feet and start working on efforts to educate people about what OpenID is. On the technical site, OpenID is more or less a sound protocol — there hasn’t been any foot dragging there, but on the consumer outreach side, they’re getting beat. Badly.

Most people have no clue what OpenID is, even though many of them actually have OpenID-enabled accounts. Everyone who uses Facebook (which is a lot of people), on the other hand, understands what Facebook is and knows what “login with Facebook” means. OpenID needs to work hard to change that in 2009.

Unfortunately, it appears that the people behind OpenID might be asleep at the wheel in some respects. While Facebook is pushing hard to get Connect out there (and Google is doing the same with Friend Connect — which actually includes OpenID), OpenID is, as Nick O’Neill puts it, “organizing the organizers,” referring to the recent OpenID Foundation community board elections that were held last week.

“I used to be a huge advocate of OpenID and I honestly believe that there is still a lot of movement going on. Unfortunately though I think the group is over planning and under executing,” says O’Neill. “While some large organizations (Yahoo! included) are supporting the identity standard, there is still a lack of general consumer education. Without that there is no way OpenID can compete with Facebook Connect and other new standards.”

Fellow blogger Allen Stern shares some of the same concerns about OpenID. “It’s more likely that the average Internet user will understand the Facebook Connect process than the OpenID process. This is why OpenID must focus on marketing and usability more than technical standards at this time,” he writes.

What the OpenID Foundation needs to do is start “getting real.” Getting real is a business philosophy from 37signals, a successful web application software company based in Chicago. Though there’s a lot more to their idea, one of the main themes essentially boils down to this: stop screwing around with all the stuff that doesn’t matter and just wastes time (like politics and meetings), and start doing the stuff that needs to get done (like building your app). Don’t worry about the details until people are already using what you’re selling.

I agree with O’Neill that so far the OpenID Foundation seems to be spending too much time on organizational stuff, and not enough time on actually doing what needs to get done. In a chapter of their book “Getting Real,” 37signals talks about how meetings can kill productivity. “Every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead,” they write. From my admittedly outsider’s vantage point, it appears that the people behind OpenID are getting too caught up in the organizational stuff, getting too lost in the details, and not spending enough time on execution.

My perspective, of course, is that of an outsider. I’m not privy to what’s going on behind closed doors, so to speak. So my perception of what’s really going on could be off. But at this point in the game, public perception is what it’s all about.

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