OpenID & The Dilemma Of Great Inventions That Nobody Can Get Their Heads Around

Ever heard of OpenID? If you read this blog, you probably have. Do you think your mom or uncle Dave has ever heard of OpenID? I’d say probably not (unless either of them are active members of the OpenID foundation).

For the less enlightened, you can find a pretty good (not great) explanation here. The problem OpenID is trying to tackle is a big one: people have different representations of their identity littered all over the Internet. Amazon. Flickr. Yahoo. Ebay. Your bank. We log in and out all day long. OpenID is an attempt to create a central representation of yourself on the Internet.

It makes a lot of sense. We’ve got a great way to identity of web destinations through a consistent, scalable model: the URL. Why not have a single place that represents me that others can "visit" and that I can then approve. It nicely turns the tables. If you want me inside your walls, you sign up to me.

Except there’s one problem. Nobody, and yes I’m intentionally excluding all the dorks that read this blog and loiter around Techmeme, knows what the hell OpenID is or, more importantly, how to make sense of it.

Yahoo announced that it’s 250 million users will be able to take advantage of OpenID (more at Techcrunch). That’s a big step for the OpenID initiative. Yahoo is huge. Still, I’m not sure if that really helps OpenID tackle its biggest issue.

So what is OpenID’s biggest obstacle? Well, I think it’s this: it lacks a conceptual model or easily-accessible metaphor that non-technical people can get their heads around. To highlight this, I’d like to compare two technologies and the lessons learned from each.

Email : It’s just like regular mail, except with an "e"

Consider the vocabulary around email:

  • Inbox
  • Sent Items
  • Forward
  • Sender
  • Reply
  • Attach
  • Signatures

GD_250_SmMailbox Email exploded in large part because it extends the widely understood concept of regular mail. Hell, even spam makes sense. Everyone gets junk mail in their regular mailbox. When email came along, adoption took off when we were able to visually reinforce the mailing process (i.e. evolving from Compuserve to Yahoo Mail).

RSS : The weird, weird world of subscribing to orange boxes

RSS is damn cool and it’s good to see the sort of strange slow-burn adoption of RSS over the past five or so years. It’s a great, time-saving way to track a lot of sites that frequently update content. Great tools like Google Reader and FeedDemon have made it even easier to track tons of content very easily.

RSS-buttons Still, if you apply the Mom Test to RSS, it fails. If you apply the Mom Test to email, it passes with flying colors – with your mom or just about anyone else. RSS lacks a real-life sibling to help people understand its purpose and value. "It’s like subscribing to a magazine" doesn’t really cut it. As a result, RSS enjoys modest but by no means mainstream adoption.

Technology Is Easy. People Aren’t

OpenID is a brilliant stroke. It’s simple and graspable – from a technical perspective – almost instantly. It’s similar to RSS in that way. RSS has been embraced on the implementation side because of its dead-on simplicity (contrast that with the cluster***k that is ATOM, and the value of its simplicity is even more visible). But like RSS, OpenID badly lacks a narrative that offsets the conceptual barrier that most people will have towards it.

So while the Yahoo announcement is big on the implementation side of things, it’s probably going to amount to very little in reality. AOL & Microsoft also announced OpenID support months ago and the net effect has been pretty much nothing.

megaphone So the lesson learned here? You may have pegged a real need out there. And you may have figured out how to solve it. But you’ve still gotta sell it to the masses. And that sell shouldn’t be underestimated or treated as an afterthought. They have to hear it and it has to resonate nice and clear. Otherwise, they’re just going to glean over it and move on.

12 Comments OpenID & The Dilemma Of Great Inventions That Nobody Can Get Their Heads Around

  1. Chris D

    I also wonder just how much of the non-tech-savvy aversion is just due to unfamiliar naming conventions.
    RSS just sounds like it’s gonna be unfathomable from the get-go. What if, from day one, it was called something very familiar? Like “e-scribe” or something more parallel to the magazine metaphor?
    Coming up with even a tangentially related metaphor for OpenID is tough, though, and I guess that’s one of the real problems. But I think RSS would have probably taken off better if they had a more friendly name for it.

  2. felix

    I see your point that email is conceptually easy to grasp by metaphor, but what about other new technology, like say the internet? “It’s like a newspaper on your tv that’s updated constantly by people all over the world’??
    Good metaphors are nice but a technology will only pass the mom test if it is useful and actionable. Emailing, browsing and googling are all actions. RSS is more like the plumbing behind the web.

  3. Richard Ziade

    Yeh I agree – RSS is a bad name that really doesn’t help matters. I think it boils down to that and the lack of a killer app. I’m sure plenty of people clicked on the orange XML boxes…and were greeted with a bunch of XML garbage.

  4. rjmoriarty

    Aha! I was wondering why I was having such a hard time explaining RSS to my non-techie friends that used e-mail! It seems to me that it’s somewhat of a shame that passing the mainstream usability test necessitates metaphors, though. Shouldn’t our thinking get more abstract as our information management does?

  5. Simon

    @rjmoriarty: To me, metaphors are more like stepping stones that enable more abstract thinking in the future…
    Take desktops, windows, files and folders, for example…back in the 70s and 80s, these simple metaphors performed a useful role in helping newbies get to grips with computers.
    Since then, however, each Windows / MacOS / Linux release has added more and more functionality to these items, making them less and less like the real-world objects that their associated metaphors describe.
    It seems that once users have understood the basic concept of a technology, the metaphor that enabled this understanding can safely be discarded (or at least downplayed).

  6. lmjabreu

    The worse thing about OpenID are the multiple providers.
    It would be much easier to have something similar to an i-name, which is much more similar to the classic username paradigm than the OpenID Identifier+openid provider+provider-specific username&password, the current OID Providers would still exist but they should be forced to implement the full spec and to be completely open to identifiers registered on other providers.
    OpenID Identifiers = domain names
    DNS-like layer ( managed by a single entity )
    OpenID Providers = server/hosting company
    Also, check this out:
    and a quick thought on that:

  7. Bob Jansen

    This is a common problem in communicating idea’s and thoughts. Recently I’ve read the book Made to Stick. It’s a simple way in getting your message clear and communicating it to other people and groups. Check the website: very nice and really worth it!
    Nice column by the way :-)

  8. Stu

    The bad thing about OpenID are the identifiers, because they are URLs.
    My mom doesnt even know what an Internet address or URL is, if it contains http, www or @ – or all of that.

  9. Bryan Seigneur

    We need a really good implementation of a friends-only RSS fee service using OpenID. As in, a slick blog that when you post an entry, you can select whether it is public or only for a defined group(s) of OpenIDs. The flip side of the blog implementation would a page that is an RSS reader using your OpenID to hit any other blogs using the same standard.

  10. Bryan Seigneur

    Before you say “That’s a social networking site!”, that’s the point! A social networking system that no one has a lock on and that joe blow basement hacker or joe blow isp can even put on his own server.


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