DigitalMe technology clear - but not its future

Novell's DigitalMe initiative announced yesterday has a solid technical foundation in Novell Directory Services (NDS) and expansive potential, analysts said, but widespread adoption by consumers and e-commerce sites is far from a sure thing.

"I think this is a very intriguing idea,'' said Harry Fenik, an analyst at Zona Research. DigitalMe's eventual effect, he said, would be to make online transactions more secure and easy to manage.

After registering at DigitalMe.com, customers would automatically be able to log in to Web sites and fill out forms requesting information from them.

Coding based on DigitalMe servers, hosted by California-based Exodus Communications, would follow consumers around the Web answering the basic questions posed by various sites. Because it's all based on servers, users could surf with the service regardless of which client machines they use, as long as they stop off at DigitalMe.com each time they begin surfing. The convenience benefits, while realistic, aren't what Fenik said intrigue him.

In theory, he said, e-commerce sites such as a user's bank, credit-card company and favourite stores would implement DigitalMe on their servers, allowing consumers to share only the information they desire to with each of them. Transactions between the different companies could be carried out in the consumer's name without any of the companies needing all of the consumer's information.

Once the shopper authorises a purchase, for example, Fenik said, a store could ask the credit-card company or bank whether he or she is really able to pay, and receive payment - all with none of the parties ever transmitting account numbers over the internet. The reason, Fenik said, is that DigitalMe can authenticate the consumer's identity to each of the companies so that transactions are conducted merely by referencing the identity rather than more private information.

While Novell's stated hope is to sell NDS and the DigitalMe development tool kit to e-commerce sites and internet service providers, it will release the source code of the system's interfaces so that DigitalMe can be viewed as an open standard. Although opening up source code will enable other directory providers eventually to offer similar services and cut into NDS's sales, Novell is more likely to sell DigitalMe as a concept if it's open, Fenik said.

Analyst Richard Villars, at IDC, said NDS is likely to compete well in the e-commerce world where there is likely to be less concern about specific platforms. While a company's in-house network might not invite Novell's products in instead of Microsoft's, an e-commerce site is likely to be more agnostic, especially if there is a specific benefit such as the opportunity to provide better customer service.

NDS runs on several platforms, Villars said, and can handle millions of objects, giving it adequate scalability. "It should be able to support this,'' he said. But there is more to making DigitalMe work than just the directory tool that would manage it, he added: the company has to show that it understands how to manage information about consumers and run a service over the internet.

Also, many companies will have to be sold on the idea that this is a better way to solicit and manage customer information than the systems they have already implemented to do just that, Villars said.

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