Liberty Alliance, Microsoft square off again

Both Microsoft Corp. and the Liberty Alliance are moving forward at full force in the race to provide a secure single sign-on system for Web services.

Microsoft, for its part, on Tuesday announced a deal with Arcot Systems Inc. that will enable Microsoft's Passport single sign-on service to make it easier for customers to purchase items online with credit cards from Visa International Inc. and MasterCard International Inc. -- both of which are also members of the Liberty Alliance. The Liberty Alliance, meanwhile, is preparing to unveil next week the first public release of its work, during an event in San Francisco.

Microsoft and Arcot Systems, a builder of online payment systems for merchants and banks, announced an alliance that will result in a service that would require users to type in their Passport user name and password to authenticate credit cards from Visa and MasterCard.

"This is ultimately about enabling B2C e-commerce . But when you think about the transactions happening here, where there is basically an application call from the e-commerce merchant out to the bank, and the bank then asking for authentication and now choosing PassPort, you have added a new layer of trust to the entire transaction. This should encourage more [business-to-business] e-commerce and closer relationships between e-commerce sites and the financial institutions that are supporting customers who are shopping there," Sohn said.

This deal will functionally and financially benefit larger merchants and banks, according to Sohn, because it gives them another option on how to piece together the necessary infrastructure with which to establish authentication.

Toward a similar end, the consortium of companies known as the Liberty Alliance Project is developing a technology to link various single sign-on authentication systems using a standard specification.

Eric Dean, chairman of the Liberty Alliance Project and CIO of United Air Lines Inc., plans to provide details about the technology July 15 at The Burton Group Corp.'s Catalyst Conference 2002, according to an invitation distributed Monday to the press.

Leading up to its debut next week, few details have been released about the specification, and some industry watchers have started to tag the specification "vaporware." Still, the idea of a standard technology for linking various authentication systems has received an enthusiastic response from a diverse collection of hardware, software, and Internet companies, said David Smith, senior analyst at Gartner Inc.

"Even before it has shipped anything, the Liberty Alliance has had a huge impact on the industry as far as making sure the Web services world has an open, interoperable service for authentication," Smith said.

It may also provide a welcome alternative to Microsoft's popular Passport authentication service, critics of that technology argue. Microsoft's single sign-on system allows users to access password-protected Web sites that support Passport without having to re-enter their user name and password each time.

Microsoft has yet to say whether Passport will support the standard being developed by Liberty Alliance Project, meaning systems that use Passport will only be compatible with other services that use the Microsoft technology. Executives from the Redmond, Wash.-based company have said they would consider supporting an industry standard specification for network identity once one has been developed.

More than 40 companies have pledged to support the Liberty Alliance specification when it becomes available, including AOL Time Warner Inc., American Express Co., General Motors Corp., Nokia Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., and eBay Inc. Once the Liberty Alliance specification is released, many of those companies are expected to begin releasing products and services that implement the specification.

Sun Microsystems, a founding member of Liberty Alliance Project, has said it will quickly add support for the specification to its software line, including its Sun ONE (Open Net Environment) Directory Server. That support is expected to be announced within five to seven days after the release of the Liberty Alliance specification, a Sun spokeswoman confirmed Monday.

In March, the company announced its Sun ONE Platform for Network Identity, a set of software and hardware products that can be used to manage which applications and data users are permitted access on a network. Adding support for the Liberty Alliance specification would allow that identity management platform to interoperate with similar offerings from other participating vendors, such as Novell.

As well as unveiling the Liberty Alliance specification, executives from companies that are members of the alliance will be on hand to demonstrate products that will make use of the technology.

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