Microsoft warms to growing Liberty Alliance

Microsoft on Tuesday gave its strongest signal yet that it may join the Liberty Alliance Project, a broad effort to create a common technology for identifying users on the Internet.

Meanwhile, five more companies will join the effort on Wednesday, in a sign of growing industry cooperation to create the common technology.

Also Wednesday, the group unveiled a formal structure for how the project will be managed. It has created a board that will coordinate all of the various participating companies and have final approval over what specifications are adopted for creating interoperability, said Eric Dean, president of the Liberty Alliance board and chief information officer of United Airlines, a division of UAL Corp.

Hewlett-Packard Co., France Telecom, General Motors Corp. and MasterCard International Inc. said Wednesday they would take part in the project and take positions on the management board. A major commercial bank, which would not identify itself, also said it would join the board.

Sun Microsystems Inc. launched the effort in September with several major partners, including Nokia Corp., NTT DoCoMo Inc., Liberate Technologies Inc. and Sony Corp. They have agreed to create a system that lets subscribers of services from the participating companies use the same login name and password to access many password-protected Web sites and other online services.

"This is less about developing a product and more about developing ways for products to work together," Dean said.

American Express Co. and AOL Time Warner Inc.'s America Online unit announced their admission into the Liberty Alliance Project earlier this month. Both companies said Wednesday they will sign on as founding members and will take positions on the management board of the project. The latest companies to jump on board bring the Liberty Alliance to 18 charter members, Dean said. About 22 additional companies have agreed to use the common technology for authentication, and hundreds more have shown interest in the project without officially joining the group, according to Sun.

"There is more than a critical mass of interest here, and I am hopeful that there will be lots more interest," Dean said.

One interested company is Microsoft, which already has its own technology -- Passport -- that allows its subscribers to visit various password-protected Web sites and conduct online transactions using a single identity. The software maker has not agreed yet to make that system work with technology developed by Liberty Alliance members, but signaled that it is seriously considering adopting technology that comes from the project.

"We've had a number of conversations in the past few weeks since the new leadership took over," said Adam Sohn, a spokesman from Microsoft's .Net technology group. "We've been having some really good two-way, open and frank discussions about it."

"If the alliance ... is really concerned about solving some interesting problems about identity on the Internet, then there's some interesting work to be done," Sohn said. "I think (Dean) has signaled to us that this alliance is trying real hard about solving these technology problems and we're going to continue to evolve our discussions."

"There are a few issues that we would have to work out before joining," he added.

Top executives from Microsoft have continually stated that the company is considering joining the Liberty Alliance Project. However, the company said it is talking with its partners and waiting until more details are announced before it determines what role it might play. Microsoft also announced its own plans to make Passport a "federated" system using a standard technology called Kerberos, so that any authentication system that also uses Kerberos will interoperate with Passport. "Our federated model for Passport based on Kerberos is in line with what some of the stated objectives of this alliance could be," Sohn said.

Some of Microsoft's partners have said they will incorporate authentication technology developed by the Liberty Alliance in their systems in addition to supporting Passport. Online auction company eBay Inc., which allows its members to sign on with a Passport login and password, has agreed to support the Liberty Alliance technology. United Airlines, which now has a lead position in the alliance, is also working with Passport.

Members of the Liberty Alliance continue to hold meetings in working groups, focusing on public policy, marketing, technology and business development. All of the members are expected to meet in Florida in January, Dean said.

The Liberty Alliance Project is online at http://www.projectliberty.org/.

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