Facebook Connect and OpenID Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”

Editor’s Note: This post was contributed by John McCrea, VP of marketing for Plaxo, which is at the vanguard of the data portability movement. He also blogs at The Real McCrea and does a weekly video podcast about “opening up the Social Web” together with Joseph Smarr, David Recordon, and Chris Messina at The Social Web TV.

As some of you know, I am a strong advocate of an evolution from the “walled garden” model of social networking toward an open Social Web, characterized by interoperability and data portability. Along the way, I have been both a cheerleader for all of the building blocks of the new “open stack” (including OpenID, OAuth, XRDS-Simple, microformats, Portable Contacts, and OpenSocial) and one of the most vocal critics of Facebook. Over the past two years, I have never missed a chance to point out Facebook’s absence from any key event or announcement around the “open” movement. And I’ve tried many different techniques to encourage Facebook down the open path, some more controversial than others.

But I had an “aha moment” on Monday of this week at a rather historic event that could only happen in Silicon Valley – a User Experience (UX) Summit for OpenID which brought together representatives from Google, Yahoo, MySpace, Microsoft, AOL, Plaxo, and others. The stated reason for assembling this group, most of whom are in direct competition with each other, was in reaction to recent usability studies on OpenID (one by Yahoo and one by Google), which made it clear that the current implementations of OpenID are confusing to mainstream users. The unstated reason that fifty of us packed together, shoulder-to-shoulder, was to muster a collective response to Facebook Connect.

You see, it’s been about a month since the first implementation of Facebook Connect was spotted in the wild over at CBS’s celebrity gossip site, TheInsider.com. Want to sign up for the site? Click a single button. A little Facebook window pops up to confirm that you want to connect via your Facebook account. One more click – and you’re done. You’ve got a new account, a mini profile with your Facebook photo, and access to that subset of your Facebook friends who have also connected their accounts to TheInsider. Oh, and you can have your activities on TheInsider flow into your Facebook news feed automatically. All that, without having to create and remember a new username/password pair for the site. Why, it’s just like the vision for OpenID and the Open Stack – except without a single open building block under the hood!

And so this past weekend I found myself looking forward to Monday’s UX Summit with a mixture of optimism and great urgency. On Sunday, I tweeted that I was excited to be going. I was stunned by the first response to come back just a few minutes later, from my friend Dave Morin, of Facebook Platform fame, “Agreed! The OpenID UX Summit is going to be awesome tomorrow. Looking forward to it.” I had heard that Facebook had been invited, but, honestly, I really didn’t know if they were going to send anyone. Then I looked at the confirmed attendee list, and saw three other heavy-hitters from Facebook were signed up: Josh Elman, Mike Vernal, and Julie Zhuo, all, like Dave, key players on the Facebook Connect initiative. “That’s very interesting,” I thought…

Monday morning came, and I saddled up with Joseph Smarr and the rest of the Plaxo crew and headed over to Yahoo. After the intros, Allen Tom of Yahoo, who organized the event, turned the first session over Max Engel of MySpace, who in turn suggested an alternative – why not let Facebook’s Julie Zhuo kick it off instead? And for the next hour, Julie took us through the details of Facebook Connect and the decisions they had to make along the way to get the user interface and user experience just right. It was not just a presentation; it was a very active and engaged discussion, with questions popping up from all over the room. Julie and the rest of the Facebook team were engaged and eager to share what they had learned.

What the heck is going on here? Is Facebook preparing to go the next step of open, switching from the FB stack to the Open Stack? Only time will tell. But one thing is clear: Facebook Connect is the best thing ever for OpenID (and the rest of the Open Stack). Why? Because Facebook has set a high bar with Facebook Connect that is inspiring everyone in the open movement to work harder and faster to bring up the quality of the UI/UX for OpenID and the Open Stack.

The day was very productive, with sessions led by Max Engel of MySpace, Eric Sachs of Google, and Joseph Smarr of Plaxo, among others. Right before lunch there was a rising chorus to form a small working group to develop a common UI spec for OpenID. Hands raised include Chris Messina (Vidoop), Joseph Smarr (Plaxo), Eric Sachs (Google), Max Engel (MySpace), and, drumroll, Julie Zhuo (Facebook).

Later in the day, there was a spirited debate about OpenID as a URL (as originally envisioned) vs. a new proposal to extend the spec to allow email addresses to be OpenIDs. Mike Jones from Microsoft was eloquent on the security risks of the email address approach. At one point, I thought the debate might devolve into chaos, but Dick Hardt, who delivered the infamous “Identity 2.0” keynote at OSCON three years ago, helped bring focus, “You have seen the competition; it is Facebook Connect. That is the new bar that we must meet.” The discussion found its way to constructive next steps; a few more folks joined the UI working group, and shortly after 5:00, the historic summit was adjourned. For those who want a little more detail, see my post, “Live Blogging the OpenID/OAuth UX Summit.”