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:
- Sent Items
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.
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.
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.