papers, please

I was outed as a new member of the Mozilla Foundation team by a press release about a now-long-past keynote address, so there isn’t really much to announce here. My contract has me working primarily as a technology strategist, a necessarily-vague position that has been described pretty well by Mitchell’s post about new people and roles in the Mozilla Foundation world. I continue to help with release management, organizational governance, and even advising the intrepid devmo squad, but I try to spend most of my time with my sights on the technology strategy issues that are of significant interest to our community and products. (Which is not to say that I do spend most of my time there, but I’m learning how to do so better every day, and with every gentle nudge from my wicked-awesome manager.)

The primary area of technology strategy that I’ve been working on so far has centred around “identity”, which is of course a topic broad enough to consume several lifetimes. I count myself lucky to have developed a grounding in identity and privacy issues while at Zero-Knowledge, as it’s allowed me to get up to speed more quickly than I might otherwise have been able to.

The biggest strength of the current identity climate is also the biggest weakness: there are a number of identity systems that provide different capabilities, are built to emphasize different values, and require different amounts of infrastructure support. As the Mozilla Foundation is chartered to promote choice and innovation on the Internet, it would seem that we’re in good shape on at least half of our primary concern: choice.

I don’t think it’s really the case, unfortunately, because the sort of choice that the user faces is not one that empowers them at all: in many ways, it forces the user to pick a winner, and it forces similarly unpleasant choices on developers that want to take advantage of “Identity 2.0″ capabilities in order to build interesting services, technologies, and experiences. Choice competes with innovation here, and while that’s a tension that arises in many contexts, it’s of even more concern when we’re talking about something this central to the web experience — and, I feel I can say without gross overstatement, to the social fabric of modern life, as mediated by all this computer nonsense.

(I should point out that all of the interesting proposals for modern identity infrastructure permit users to exert control over what organizations actually hold their private information, which is a huge step forward from the Passport nightmare we faced not that long ago. I still think that having to choose an identity system is a bad scene, but it could certainly be worse.)

Being the technology strategist for the Mozilla Foundation has its perks, and chief among them is that I get to work with a truly amazing team on a project that really is at the center of the modern web. Right after that, though, is that a lot (lot) of people want to talk to me, and while it can be a mixed blessing in terms of time management, it’s tremendously helpful in making sense of something as complex as the identity landscape. I had good, if preliminary, discussions with folks from the Passel and SXIP camps, while I was at OSCON, and I’ve since been setting up meetings with other identity-system boosters to get other perspectives. (If you are with an identity system group and you haven’t made contact with me yet, please do send mail and some information about your system, because I’m by no means done with that part of the process.)

Most recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with Kim Cameron, Microsoft’s Architect of Identity and Access and the father of InfoCard. He came to spend some time with me in Toronto this week, and I was delighted to discover that we share many of the same positions on the key obstacles to having viable identity infrastructure on the web today. The InfoCard work looks to be pretty good from philosophical and architectural perspectives, and I’m trying to learn enough about the whole bloody WS-* stack to really grok the details. We had a very good conversation about a wide range of technical and social issues, and I look forward to more of them in the future. I’m pretty confident that Kim genuinely wants to do the Right Thing, and even more importantly he seems to have the Right Idea about what the Right Thing is — which is to say, in other words, that we agree about many things, much to his credit.

I hope to write more in the coming days about the identity systems I’ve looked at, and what I think the general form of Mozilla’s identity strategy should be, but I wanted to break my blogging fast and talk a little bit about what I’m working on these days. It’s really too exciting to keep to myself!

6 comments to “papers, please”

  1. janice
    entered 18 August 2005 @ 10:26 am

    I would have bragged about this on my blog. Ahem. IF I’d known! Apparently I need a better news feed regarding my son’s activities. Volunteers?

  2. George
    entered 19 August 2005 @ 3:06 pm

    This is superb! I’m very excited for you, Mike, and for the world at large. Nice coincidence that I happened to look at your blog today after a long time of no blog trolling.

  3. Phil Pishioneri
    entered 20 August 2005 @ 3:33 pm

    If you haven’t already, check out this part of the NSF Middleware Initiative: .

  4. Anonymous
    entered 20 August 2005 @ 3:34 pm

    If you haven’t already, check out this part of the NSF Middleware Initiative: . (hey, the URL disappeared when I previewed before.)

  5. entered 29 August 2005 @ 11:13 pm

    [...] This is the first — perhaps second — in what I expect will be a long-ish series exploring some of my thinking behind what the “identity strategy” for Mozilla should look like. Not necessarily what the strategy will be, but what problems it needs to solve, and how the values of the project are reflected in the choices that we face. [...]

  6. entered 19 September 2005 @ 12:27 pm

    [...] I ran across this article this morning, about how Microsoft is reaching out to other browsers like Firefox and Safari to encourage adoption of InfoCard technologies. The article is certainly true as written, and I’ve written before about some of my involvement in those discussions, but I would like to caution people against reading into it that we have made or announced concrete plans to support InfoCard as a piece of the Firefox platform. [...]