Amex joins Liberty Alliance as Microsoft ponders

The list of companies signing on as members of the Liberty Alliance Project continued to grow Wednesday as American Express Co. (Amex) said that it would join the industry effort to create a common technology for identifying users on the Internet.

Launched in September by Sun Microsystems Inc. and about 30 companies and IT vendors, the Liberty Alliance is working to build a shared authentication system that enables Web users to access password-protected Web sites and perform other online transactions without entering personal information in each instance.

American Express has been actively taking part in the project since its inception in September but hadn't yet gone public with its involvement, said Marge Breya, vice president of SunONE (Open Network Environment), one of Sun's divisions taking part in the Liberty Alliance. In fact, there are about 13 member companies who are keeping mum about participation in the effort, she said.

"We decided to let each member come forward with its involvement," Breya said. "It's just one of those things, even from the get-go, we've decided we would respect the privacy of participating companies."

The Liberty Alliance Project has surfaced as a competitor to Microsoft Corp.'s Passport authentication service, the single sign-on technology that allows its subscribers to visit participating Web sites without signing on to each of those sites.

Passport members include users of Microsoft's free e-mail service Hotmail, as well as subscribers to several other Web sites such as those run by Starbucks Corp. and Victoria's Secret. Microsoft has also positioned Passport as the sign-on service for the collection of Web services it is developing, called .Net My Services.

While Passport and the Liberty Alliance have butted heads as the two principal companies behind the separate efforts are contentious rivals, the two technologies could yet cross paths.

Microsoft has already suggested in September that it would consider joining the Liberty Alliance if the authentication platform it develops is based on an open standard. Breya said Microsoft reaffirmed that stance in a conversation she had Monday with Microsoft executive Charles Fitzgerald, the director of business strategy for Microsoft's platform strategy group.

"He confirmed that the company was considering membership," she said. "I really hope they will join."

If Microsoft linked its Passport system with the effort underway with Liberty Alliance, it would create a vast network of Web sites and Web service that would share a common technology for authenticating users.

Internet giant America Online Inc. said Tuesday that it would take part in the project, adding its 32 million members to the fray. Other member companies such as RealNetworks Inc., UAL Corp.'s United Airlines and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines also add large pools of Internet users to the effort.

Adding up the subscribers of each member company, the Liberty Alliance has more than 1 billion Internet users that would be able to travel the Web with a single identity and access Web sites and services from participating companies, Breya said. If Microsoft added its Passport system to the group, it would add about 200 million more users.

Members of the Liberty Alliance have been meeting since Tuesday to discuss the technical and business strategies behind the project. No specifications of the shared authentication technology have been announced yet, and the group isn't expected to publically announce any details until mid-2002, Breya said.

"We do know that it must be a lightweight and pretty simple technology so it can be a nice common denominator for all the members," she said. "It's got to be such that many different industries from wireless to financial services can make use of it."

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